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When Your Child is Kidnapped

"Child Missing!" It sounds like something you'd hear on the news or see in a TV movie. But that headline became my reality last spring when I endured the longest 22 hours of my life -- waiting, hoping, and praying for my 3-year-old daughter Jenna's safe return.

The agonizing ordeal began when my mother -- who lives in the same suburban Michigan neighborhood as I do -- stopped by our house on a Saturday afternoon and offered to take Jenna toy shopping. I was eager for some time alone so I could clean the house, and my husband, Doug, wanted to work in the yard. So we encouraged Jenna, who was a bit reluctant, to go with her grandma.

About an hour later, I saw my dad pull up outside. As soon as he got out of his car, I knew something was wrong. "Someone took your mother's car," he yelled as he ran into the house. "And Jenna was in it."

Pale and winded, my father tried to explain what had happened: My mom had been in line at the toy store when a man approached her, asking whether she was the owner of the burgundy Mercury Sable parked outside. When she said yes, he told her she had a flat tire and volunteered to change it. The man seemed perfectly nice, so she accepted his offer.

When the tire was fixed, my mom thanked the good samaritan, gave him some money, and buckled Jenna into her car seat. He then suggested she let him test the steering, so my mom handed him her keys. He got into the driver's seat -- and sped off.

When I heard the news, I felt my legs collapse. I grabbed my husband and yelled, "Go find her." He raced off to the toy store to meet the cops, and a neighbor came to stay with me. As the reality of what happened began to sink in, I got hysterical, unable to stop sobbing. I felt sick to my stomach, as if I were going to faint.

Meanwhile, police had put out a bulletin alerting local precincts to be on the lookout for my mother's car. Because my mom didn't know her license-plate number and it had to be tracked down, it took a while before police could activate an Amber Alert -- the new emergency system that sends out notification that a child is missing. But once the alert was issued, my daughter's abduction became nationwide news.

Over the next several hours, I alternated between feeling completely numb and totally terrified. I kept thinking how scared and lonely my daughter must feel. And I worried about the dangers she faced. The man had known she was there, so he clearly wasn't just trying to steal a car. What did he want with her?

Time passed like an eternity. Family members and friends stayed with us until late in the evening. Finally, Doug and I crawled into bed at about 2 a.m., but neither of us could sleep. We cuddled together and just listened to each other cry. Dark thoughts clouded my mind. I'd always heard that if you don't find an abducted child within the first 24 hours, odds are you won't find her alive. I stared at the ceiling thinking that time was running out.

By 6 a.m. the next morning, our fighter instincts had taken over, and the house quickly became command central. Neighbors helped make flyers and organize search teams. I drew maps of the neighborhoods to hand out to the scores of volunteers. I felt energized by the fact that there was something I could do.

Our efforts were interrupted at about noon when the cops called, asking me, Doug, and my mom to come to the station. They needed to talk to us as part of their investigation, which is routine in such situations. When we were finished there, I looked at my watch and noticed it was 1:30 p.m. I felt sick as I realized that time was closing in on our chances of finding Jenna alive. I was fixated on the 24-hour statistic.

Just then, my cell phone rang. It was my friend, Natalie, calling from my house. Her words are forever etched in my memory: "They found Jenna," Natalie yelled. "And she's fine!" I could hear a lot of cheering and screaming in the background. I started crying and shaking. "They found my baby," I screamed out.

The car was discovered in a run-down part of Detroit. The cops think that when the kidnapper learned of the Amber Alert, he got scared and ditched the car -- and Jenna. In the morning, someone called the police to say they'd spotted a little girl in an abandoned vehicle. When the cops arrived, they found Jenna unharmed and still strapped into her car seat -- just as she had been when the kidnapper drove away.

When we got the news, we raced to the hospital where Jenna had been taken for a checkup. I ran to her and held her close. I tried to control myself; I didn't want her to see me cry. She'd already been through so much.

"I peed in Grandma's car," was the first thing Jenna said to me.

Aside from being tired and hungry, she seemed fine. A few hours later, we brought her home. She was all smiles when we arrived to a huge welcome party -- complete with TV cameras -- on our front lawn.

Jenna knows all about what happened: that a bad man tried to take the car while she was in it. She talks about it often, which we encourage her to do. "Mommy, you were looking for me when I was gone," she'll say. "That's right," I tell her.

Unfortunately, the police have not yet found her abductor. I pray that they will soon. I just want him to get what he deserves. As for me, I keep reminding myself how lucky I am. Far too many child abductions end in tragedy. Thankfully, my daughter made it home safe and sound.

Copyright © 2003 Lee Ann Hart, as told to Julie Weingarde Dubin. Reprinted with permission from the September 2003 issue of Parents Magazine.