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Facing life with lost souls

Original Source: THE CANBERRA TIMES: 25 MAY 2012
Claire Low May 25, 2012
Parent's worst nightmare ...20,000 children are reported lost in Australia each year. Photo: Thinkstock

Today is International Missing Children's Day. With more than 20,000 children reported lost in Australia each year, Claire Low explores one of the worst nightmares that parents can face.


Isra Aksema's struggles are nothing short of dreadful: Missing since August 2004 in the Netherlands, Isra was abducted by her father after he killed her mother. She is 10 years old now and her picture reveals a pretty-in-pink little poppet, smiling shyly at someone off-camera.


This is one of the many case studies on the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children's website.


This website isn't cheery. It also features the now-famous image of strikingly pretty child Madeleine McCann, as she was at the time of her disappearance in 2007 in Portugal, along with an image of how she could look now, aged nine, complete with distinctive right pupil running into the blue-green iris.

Rebecca Kotz, team leader of the AFP's National Missing Persons Coordination Centre. Photo: Rohan Thomson

Closer to home, there are the cases of Amelia Toa Hausia, born in July, 1974, who has been missing since December 1992.


Last seen in a Canberra shopping centre, she vanished after a fight with her boyfriend and has not been seen or heard from since 1993 when she contacted her mother in Tonga to say she was OK.


There is also Elizabeth Herfort, last seen in June, 1980, at the Australian National University Union Bar in Canberra, thought to have disappeared after hitchhiking. Another person who vanished when she was younger, Megan Louise Mulquiney, would be 44 now and hasn't been seen since July 1984, after finishing work at Woolworths Woden, just after noon.


Kate McCann stands in front of a picture of her daughter, Madeleine, who went missing during a family holiday to Portugal in 2007. Photo: Reuters

 The collection of sad stories and pictures of children frozen in time is linked to from the Help Bring Them Home website, which promotes the cause of missing children for International Missing Children's Day, which is today. This website takes the form of a hauntingly empty playground populated only by white balloons. Each balloon, when clicked on, reveals another vanished child: curly-haired Jasmine Sbaragli, missing since January 1, 2009, from Lucca, Italy; grinning Rista Chanthavixay, missing since March 2009 in NSW; mop-topped Adrian Stoica Dumitru, lost since February 2, 2007, from Sintesti, Romania; and round-cheeked Abby Maryk, missing since August 30, 2008, from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Sad-eyed Fazli Saeem has been lost since July 14, 2009, from Athens, Greece. Cameron Leishman of NSW, missing since September 2008, squints awkwardly into bright light.


Lost boys and girls are plentiful enough: of the 35,000 people reported missing in Australia every year, about 20,000 of those are younger than 18. The good news, though, is the vast majority aren't gone forever: ''In 99.5 per cent of cases, they [police] find the child,'' Rebecca Kotz says.


Kotz is team leader at the Australian Federal Police National Missing Persons Coordination Centre. She is kind and maternal - in fact, a mother of two herself. Her darlings are an 11-year-old daughter and a 15-year-old son. 

The Beaumont children, who disappeared from Adelaide in 1966.

As part of her role at the centre, Kotz meets with Australian families who are missing a loved one.


''I think they're incredible people,'' she says. ''If any of my kids went missing, I would be a basket case.


''I don't know how some of [the families] survive, I really don't. 

Tips for children to stay safe.

''I can tell you, if it happened to me, I don't know how I would carry on. I don't know how I would wake up and breathe the next day. It would be horrific.''


Explaining what parents should do if faced with the predicament of a missing child, she says there's absolutely no need to wait.


One myth in Australia is that one should wait 24 hours to report anyone missing.


''It's probably the worst myth,'' Kotz says. ''You don't have to wait any time. If you have fears for the safety of a loved one, you go straight to police and report them missing.''


In fact, earlier is better.


''As soon as the trail goes cold, it's harder to trace somebody,'' Kotz says.


Another good thing - in Australia, children usually go missing for an innocent enough reason: a failure to tell their parents of a change of plans, according to Kotz. Parental abduction figures in Australia are low with the family court dealing with about 140 cases per year. Stranger abductions are rarer still.


''We live on a massive island,'' Kotz says. ''There's not a long way to take them unless you're a parent and you've got a passport in your hand. It's very rare to find a Daniel Morcombe case.''


Daniel was a Sunshine Coast teenager who went missing in 2003. His remains were found, and a Perth man taken into custody and charged with his murder, last year. His family set up a foundation in his name to teach personal safety to the young and vulnerable.


But, again, the chances of a case like this occurring are slim. In her time at the centre, the number of stranger abduction cases Kotz has dealt with she could count on one hand.


''We're lucky in Australia. Our main area of concern is a child in care who is a regular runaway,'' Kotz says, explaining that a lot of the runaways in question are in care services or foster homes, struggling with life and rebelling. The child tends to simply be out with friends rather than wherever they are supposed to be waiting to be picked up.


Police searching for missing children take each report seriously. They take as much information from the parents as possible, then chase the child's friends, schools, sporting associations, and anyone the child could be connected with.


''All their procedures are very thorough,'' Kotz says. ''They don't stop until they find the child.''


The child is not thought to be dead until a body is found. A coroner can make a ruling, usually after at least seven years, on evidence of life, not whether the child is alive or dead. As long as the child is missing, the case remains open. Here, Kotz cites the case of the Beaumont children, who famously went missing in the 1960s. New work had been done on parts of the investigation as recently as last year.


''That case will not go away because it's an absolute mystery as to whether those kids are now adults, not realising who they were,'' she says.


At this point, Kotz becomes impassioned.


''Can I say one thing: the worst thing any media can do - and it's really hard for families to deal with - is put the word ''closure'' to anything.


''Whether they find a body, whether they find the child alive and well, whatever the case may be, it's never closure. Let me make that perfectly clear.''


For the families, locating a child or a body only opens up more questions. For instance, according to Kotz, a girl, missing for two decades, was found fine and well, but because of her personal issues, was unable to face her family's questions once reunited with them.


''That is a success story, but it's still not closure,'' she says.


Mentioning Daniel Morcombe again, the locating of the boy's remains and having something to bury likewise was not closure for his family, who had ''been through living hell''.


''It opens up to [questions like] what did he go through in his last moments and what happened to him?


''They have to live with that for the rest of their life.


''The one thing families say to me time and time again is people saying, in the media, that they've finally got closure, is the worst thing.''


It's almost impossible to imagine the profound pain families of missing children must feel. Kotz describes her own heart palpitations and immense emotions when her daughter, then aged two, went missing. The girl turned up quickly on a queen-sized bed at David Jones among a bunch of teddy bears.


But for those stuck in limbo, not knowing, fearing the worst, what must it be like?


Psychologist David Gorovic, of Canberra Counselling Services, says, ''The key experience is they are in limbo. To experience grief, you need a definite loss. In this situation, there is nothing definite.


''It's distressing and devastating because the brain doesn't like uncertainty, doesn't like gaps. It fills gaps with imagination: [parents] imagine all sorts of horrible things. People imagine the worst and imagination becomes reality. Then they react to what they imagine, not to what happened.''


He finds the known can be easier to deal with than the unknown.


''It's still distressing and painful and traumatic, but there is an option to move on,'' he says. ''Often people with this sort of problem get stuck and the problem becomes their life.''


Blame can become a problem for those who try to re-write history in their mind, whether self-blame (''oh, if only I had left five minutes earlier''), or blame directed at the child's school or the child's other parent.


Gorovic's approach to trying to help someone in this situation is to set up some structure for the person hurting and struggling with no answers.


Practical concerns can be addressed - ''like if it keeps them awake at night and because they can't sleep, they can't function. Or maybe they're always in a state of alert: walking down the street then panicking.''


Gorovic's aim would be to help the parent or affected person get on with their lives: ''Not to forget about it, not to get over it, but to be able to find meaning in their own life once the child is gone. To live their own lives even though the child is not there.


''One approach I take when somebody has lost a loved one is to say, 'What would this person want from you? Would they want you to go on crying and put your life on hold? Would they want you to do something else?' ''


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