By Steven Slinkard
Almost 20-years ago, my ex-wife had our three children on a court-ordered visit. After our divorce some time before, I had been granted custody of our two sons and daughter in our hometown of Greenfield, Indiana. But I wanted them to have a normal relationship with their mother, and so off they went for a brief visit.
They never came back. They remained missing for the next 18-years.
The personal impact was devastating. My desire and willingness to do anything to bring my kids home never faltered. However, my hopes of fulfilling that dream developed into a nightmare of despair. I became withdrawn and depressed as time went on – years passing without any knowledge or likelihood of finding my children. I stopped socializing with friends, while attending family functions became difficult and church no longer was a place of solace for me. I listened to my friends and family talk about their children, but I wasn’t able to add anything to the conversation since my sources of inspiration were no longer part of my life.
I began to think I was being punished for something I had done and that I didn’t deserve to be happy. Unfortunately, I did not seek professional counseling because I didn’t believe anyone could help me without experiencing the same type of loss. My lifecycle became robotic in nature…sleep, eat, and work.
My spare time was spent surfing the Internet, placing information about my missing children on various websites. I sent flyers and letters to various organizations, schools, police stations and hospitals around the world to keep their abduction story alive. I hoped that someone, somewhere, someday would recognize a picture of my children and advise authorities of their location.
The best thing I did was to become involved as a parent advocate with Team Hope, an association of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. I might not have taken advantage of counseling for myself, but I was able to positively impact other parents suffering a similar fate. It helped me to help them understand the process, show them how to locate resources, and give them an avenue to discuss their feelings with someone who could relate.
But my story – at least partially – ended far more happily than is the fortune of many parents of missing children. On January 27, 2014, my son Nathan, whom I had last seen when he was five years old, walked into the U.S. Consulate in Guadalajara, Mexico. He had been living in that country under an assumed name since 1995. He told them his American name and said he wanted to go home.
Nathan was able to provide the consulate agents with his original birth certificate, social security card, a picture of him with me when he was about four years old, and other important documents. He was also able to show identifying body marks to confirm his identity. DNA comparison was not necessary since they were able to prove his identity without it.
Although Nathan is 18-years older and his facial features have matured from those of a little boy to a man, it only took a couple of seconds of looking at his picture to recognize him as my little brown-eyed, blond-haired boy whom I love more than life. The U.S. Consulate, National Center, F.B.I., and Hancock County (Indiana) Sheriff’s Department coordinated their efforts to quickly bring my boy home.
Now, nearly 20-years after my children went missing, I have one of my children back in my life. I cannot begin to describe the elation and new sense of wholeness I feel. Nathan’s return has provided me with a rejuvenated, renewed awareness in life’s vigor. While I still don’t have complete closure, as I have had no contact with my other children, I have a renewed degree of resolution. Nathan’s assurance of Andrew and Sydney’s safety and good health gives me great comfort and relief.
The old saying, “as one door closes, another one opens,” has always held strong meaning for me. Having Nathan back and the probability of someday becoming reacquainted with Andrew and Sydney has closed a long and painful chapter of my life. But it isn’t over yet. There are more aspects to closure than simply being reunified with your missing loved one. Unfortunately, I hadn’t allowed myself to fully process my grief back when my children were taken from me and I didn’t process it over the many years they were missing.
I now find myself working through the remaining stages of grief, as well as feelings of confusion, anger, and anxiety. I am anxious to understand the experiences my children have had over the hears and about them accepting me, wanting to be a part of my life, and allowing me to be a part of their lives. I am angry when I think of the milestones, memories, the hurts and joys of their lives that I missed out on while they were growing up. I am confused by how my life has changed, once again, on a dime.
The life, routine, and norm I lived the past 18-years changed. I am a dad again. I no longer have to suffer the complete unknown and uncertainty about my missing children’s wellbeing, safety, and welfare. I now can worry in the same fashion as most other parents for their adult children. My daily routine, as well as my spare time, is no longer spent in the same way as I did for so many years.
Looking back over the past two decades of my life, I am now able to better scrutinize my actions and thoughts. Of course there are some things I wish I would have done differently. No two people react to tragedy in the same way; everyone responds in their individual, unique manner. There is no right or wrong way for a parent or family to approach the fear, pain, and uncertainty of a missing child. Although Nathan is the only one of my children who has returned home so far, I maintain hope to be blessed with a relationship with Andrew and Sydney om the future.