Vanished and Forgotten

I spent the past two weeks working as a stand-in for a private practice family doctor in the tiny town of McCleary, Washington.

The stirringly beautiful enclave is better described as a village.  Calling it a ‘town’ implies a bit more hustle and bustle than actually goes on here.

Evergreen trees pepper the landscape, outnumbering cars ten to one.  Wooden cabins and simple churches with peeling paint line the single main road.  A generous census – throwing in some dogs and cats to pad the number – wouldn’t put the population over 2000.

But even here, in one of the most idyllic settings in all of rural America, something wicked this way…came.

lindseyOn a soft warm night typical for Western Washington this time of year, 10-year old Lindsey J. Baum disappeared while on a short walk home from her friend’s house.

She was last seen on June 26th around 9pm wearing a gray hoodie.  Lindsey should have made it home well before dark at this latitude in early summer.  But after weeks with no leads, authorities now assume the girl was abducted.

Each day as I worked in the small medical clinic, I overheard discussions about Lindsey.  Frequently, people decried the lack of “truly effective” sex offender laws.

The one running blog I found about the situation abounds with merciless criticism of those who allowed her to walk home alone.  The posts have an annoying, self-anointed authority and certitude about them, coupled with virtually zero compassion.

townMy criticism, however, focuses on the response of the outlying communities during this tragedy.

7 years ago, about this same time of year, a similar event occurred to a young girl not much older than Lindsey in Salt Lake City.  In that case, word of the abduction spread to every news outlet in the English-speaking world in a matter of hours.  Pictures of her were posted on websites and in newspapers in ever-widening circles, to include towns and cities hundreds of miles away.

Every day, this girl’s story stayed in public view.  News of her disappearance became a dull, throbbing headache to virtually the entire Western United States.

That girl, Elizabeth Smart, survived her ordeal and was returned to her parents fully 8 months after being led at knife-point from her own bedroom.  Her abductor was recognized by someone who had seen a picture of him on “America’s Most Wanted”.  Nearly a year after the incident, this girl’s abduction was still making top news stories.  Why?

The Smart family drove this process, true.  The parents had money, were excellent communicators and kept their wits about them in a horrific situation.

But they also commanded a small army of help. Literally thousands of people lined up to join the effort.  The Laura Recovery Center and other organizations dedicated to this type of tragedy joined the effort as well.

People worked continually to get the Smart family onto national news and talk shows.  Pictures of the victim and her suspected abductor appeared on Larry King Live and Oprah.  And, of course, the show that ultimately led to the break in the case managed to make the story seem relevant months after the incident occurred.

By contrast, Lindsey is yesterday’s news.  You can’t find a current story on her anywhere.  For all I know, she’s home watching Hannah Montana and pondering boyfriend proposals.

mapMcCleary is so tiny, its presence is rewarded with a dot only on maps with an unusual commitment to cartographic accuracy.  The community there can’t make much noise by themselves; certainly nothing to approach the caucophony of a galvanized rescue movement in the heart of upscale Salt Lake City.

The only paper that has carried regular updates about Lindsey is The Daily World, which covers sparsely-populated Grays Harbor County.  A little village like McCleary needs help.  It needs the media power of cities like Tacoma and Seattle, and even here in Olympia.

Yet daily checks of the Seattle Times reveal constant updates about Amanda Knox – a case involving a beautiful college student, sex, drugs and murder – deliciously entering year 3 of drama, but nothing about little Lindsey.  Here in the capital of Washington, The Olympian seems to have the memory of a golden retriever regarding this case, and we’re only 20 minutes down the road.

The Puget Sound region should be plastered with information about Lindsey Baum.  Every 3rd street light and telephone pole should have a Lindsey Baum flyer attached to it.  Every newspaper in the region should have a running narrative of the latest updates on her case next to their logos.  Every citizen from Port Angeles to Portland, from Westport to Boise should know the name, and the story, of Lindsey Baum.

This isn’t idealistic, hyper-passionate pontificating, either.  I distinctly remember stopping for a lay-over flight in Salt Lake City during the summer of 2002.  As we made our way from one flight to another, we could rightly have called the place “Elizabeth Smart International Airport.”  Thousands of fliers and posters papered halls, pillars, windows and doors everywhere we went.

I don’t think anything will change with tougher pedophilia and kidnapping laws.  I also do not think parents need to be more vigilant about this kind of thing.  Increasing either has too many unwanted side-effects.

CandleWhat needs to change is how our communities respond to such a horror.

The abduction of any of my 4 children is the singular fear of my life.  If it did happen to our family, I can only hope that hundreds, even thousands of concerned citizens would take up the burden to rescue that child.  Even if I lived in a forgotten small town off in the hills and away from the city lights.  Even if I was poor.  Even if divorced, uneducated, bad on camera, or just plain ugly.

The way to stop child abduction is to make it really, really hard to steal a child.  An army of awareness might save Lindsey Baum from this evil she faces.  Ignorance lets it flourish.

How Do We Stop Child Molesters?

I spent 3 years in Israel. There is very little pedophilia in the Middle East. Very little reported anyway. I remember returning one year from Israel and passing through the Salt Lake City airport. Plastered on every wall and window were pictures of a young girl named Elizabeth Smart – abducted right out of her own home in the middle of the night. I remember those fliers conjuring a number of feelings in me…including resentment at the fact that so many of my fellow Americans told me aloud how unwise I was for taking my wife and kids to such a dangerous place like Israel. In fact, I only got tense about the safety of my family once I’d crossed back into the States.

Pedophilia isn’t a strictly American problem. The curse spans the globe and may very well be more rampant in countries other than this one but simply less well-reported. Still, the practice is alive and well in the States and – fair or not – I have this sneaking suspicion we lead the way in terms of numbers and severity of the problem.

The hardest thing for me about pedophilia is that I don’t really understand it. One half-glance at Angelina Jolie, or – insert scantily-clad, photoshopped, verneer-toothed, 1000 bucks/month hairstyle babe or hunk here – and I can understand the allure of adultery. That’s easy, actually.  Example:  I’m out walking my dog…well, actually I’m out pooping my dog.  When I take out my dog (Fetch) often all I want is for him to just not BM in my yard.  I take him all over the rural trail behind my house in the hopes that he’ll go there instead.  He snifs and prifs around forever, but it’s worth it.  It saves me from having to pick up – gagging – endless piles of dog poop and dumping them into a bag that gets disgustingly heavier as I find ever more gifts from my “best friend”.  Let’s pretend, then, that there I am, pooping my dog.  I’ve been working all day.  Dinner’s burnt (actually, my wife never burns anything, but we’re in make-believe).  I have lots of sick patients in hopeless situations in the hospital.  I haven’t worked out since bench-pressing was invented and the idea of being adventurous is as foreign to me as the click consonants of Zulu.  Unexpectedly, a woman jogs – no, gllliiides – up looking painfully lonely which is inexplicable because her face is airbrushed to perfection and she’s moving around all silky-like in her tight jogging stuff and looks just like a magazine cover. In fact, I think I see the word “Elle Magazine” hovering mistily just above her head.

“Oh, what a wonderful dog! Look at him pooop!” She exclaims, clearly impressed beyond belief at my dog-training skills.  She looks at me with unabashed admiration, flutters her eyelashes and demurrs, “Maybe we could take him to meet my dog and they could poop together.”

My answer in each of these type of bizarre fantasies is a gallant, loyal and banal, “No. I’m in love.” But why would I have the fantasy? Actually, this particular dog-pooping fantasy is just made up for you, dear readers.  Never dreamed up anything much like that except now, to make a point. And that point is that I can at least relate to the people who do have unhappy marriages and do run into some scantily-clad potential mate, and do fall into the very bad choices one can make in those circumstances. I get it. Haven’t done it. Don’t want to. But I get it.

Not so with pedophilia. I can’t make up a scenario that makes me say, “Well, it isn’t for me, but I guess I can understand it.” It just doesn’t make sense – even theoretically – to me.  Because of this, I fear it more than other things like leukemia or car wrecks.

Aside from fearing what I don’t understand, it makes sense to fear pedophilia because it is much more common than many other calamities that can befall kids. Bike helmets? Statistically useless.  Severe head trauma is almost non-existent compared to the risk of being sexually molested. Guess how many (I’d insert some funky little poll here that you could click on if I knew how to work the tech stuff, but I don’t.)? The depressing answer is at least one in every 4 kids will be sexually molested by the time they are 13! That’s 25% of the American child population. Additionally, a random survey waaay back in 1988 (so things are probably worse now) found that close to 1 in 10 men admitted sexually molesting a child at some point. This is a mind-boggling number. Please, if you have kids, let that number boggle your mind.

So, if you forget the bike helmet once in awhile (little more than peer pressure in head-shaped foam, I say), no big deal. But don’t forget, or neglect altogether, to teach your kids about sexual predators.

Here are some things to know:

– If done well, you won’t scare your kids by talking to them about sexual predators.
– Give your kids – even as young as 5 or 6 – the right words to describe their sexual organs. It doesn’t have to be “penis” and “vagina” exactly, but it does need to be specific to the areas.  They need to be comfortable talking about this area of their bodies.
– Educate on what is acceptable touching in those areas. It’s pretty limited (doctors, parents), so this should be a short conversation.
– Roll play. Kids like this because it’s imaginative. Be as creative as you can in your stories. Tell them you’re going to try to trick them, and then do it (“Hiii little girl, I have an extra Polly Pocket in my car that my own little girl doesn’t want, would you like it?). Most kids will think it’s fun, but be as persuasive as you can. Believe it or not, this is a great dinner-time conversation. The message to them is simple: NEVER BE ALONE WITH ANYONE UNLESS YOUR PARENTS KNOW ABOUT IT.

teacher.jpgHere’s a couple of known strategies of pedophiles:

– They’re usually known – personally or visually (janitor, or teacher across the hall, etc) to the child.
– They usually start small. Always be wary of a present given to a child from an adult.
– Their push is always going to trend – eventually – toward being alone with the child.
– Molesters tend to know what your kid likes and dislikes. They’re often very current on child trends.
– They often speak harshly about molesters.
– They are often charming, good-looking, in leadership roles and work with children.

I recently saw a child who had been molested by another older child. The molester was 12, and already had a strong addiction to porn and a fetish for oral sex. Naturally, this kid was almost certainly abused at an earlier age, and now has a very grim life to look forward to. The prognosis for the younger kid is actually good, if he continues to get good treatment. Bravo to the parents for listening to their child and believing him when he made a few off-hand comments that were out of character.

Lately I’ve wondered if my response to pedophilia is similar to the medical establishment’s response to homosexuality 60 years ago.  They said it was aberrant.  It was a psychological disorder.  They were opposed by a committed group of people (mostly gay themselves) who insisted the practice was normal.  Today, the docs of that generation are considered to have been in error and homosexuality is accepted as a normal variant of human sexual relations.  Perhaps this is my generation’s bias.  Maybe we’ll look back in 60 years and think of people like me as close-minded fascist prudes.  There are actually a number of groups that promote pedophilia (replacing my ominous language with terms like ‘love’) and see it as completely normal.

maddie.jpgWhile I’m open and often intrigued by the myriad ways that people think and behave, I don’t think I’ll ever see pedophilia as anything other than strength preying on weakness, leading ultimately to complete destruction.  I see it as an evil and a horror and a practice that must be opposed in every way.  

I suppose I’m just a bigot like that.