She was 13 years old.
The day that I was Christmas shopping and chiding myself for almost forgetting the Santa wrapping paper and performing in my last holiday show of the season and gathering with friends for their annual White Elephant Exchange Christmas party - a mother across town was frantic.
She was panic stricken and not knowing what to do.
She was worried and afraid and scared and confused and overwhelmed.
And I was at a party, sitting in a circle, unwrapping my gag gift: a trashy supermarket check-out novel; you know the kind, with the shirtless man posed on the front cover, long hair blowing in the wind, called The Lady and the Falconer. And I swore to everyone I would read it.
As I was laughing, the mother of a beautiful 13-year old child, was living her worst nightmare.
Her child was missing.
Her daughter wasn't at a friend's house.
She wasn't where she was supposed to be.
No one knew where she was.
And no one knew if she would ever be seen again.
It's those things that aren't said that goes through a mother's mind; things that you must push down and push aside so you can try to remember something, anything, no matter how small - something that will make a difference.
How do you sleep when your child is missing? How do you eat? Where do you go? Do you stay? Do you go out looking? Where do you look? What do you do when you can't find your child?
Within hours news hit our small community; a place where everyone knows everyone else and everyone is connected by just two or three degrees of separation:
Her aunt is my friend.
My daughter is in her dance class.
I work with her grandmother.
They live across the street.
I went to school with her mother.
Everyone in this small community seemed to be thinking the same thing: this is way too close to home.
Fliers went up everywhere. In every store. At every corner. In every school. The rate information was shared virtually was astounding.
Family prayed and strangers prayed. Please, please bring her home safely... Protect her, dear Lord... Don't let her go, Lord... help bring her home... please, please just find her and bring her home....
And all those prayers were answered.
She was found last night.
The media release the news that police gathered information from her computer and quickly came to realize there was a very real possibility she was in the company of a 21-year old man from Nebraska. An Amber Alert was issued which included a description of the car and the Nebraska license plates. The car was found at a motel in a neighboring community. So was the 13-year old girl.
And this news brought together a great sigh of relief...
and also some incredibly insensitive commentary.
I suppose it's easy to jump to the assumption that this girl's parents are a bunch of morons who allowed their young daughter unsupervised time on the internet and so what did they expect? It's easy to say that this happened because the computer should have been in the living room where all the perfect parents of all the perfect children keep their computers. (Even though none of us truly know where the computer was stationed in their home.) And I suppose it's easy to say that this would never happen to our child because we don't allow our daughters to talk to 21-year old men.
I suppose if you said any of that then you wouldn't have to really deal with what this situation has brought to our attention:
Is the answer unplug the computer?
Or do we have some real work as parents to do?
I have a daughter who is 10. Once, at a local high school football game some high school boy was walking by and said hi to my daughter. By her name. Who was that? I asked. And how on earth does he know you? "Oh, that's one of Katie's brothers friends. He was there when I was spending the night."
Now, I'm pretty confident saying Katie's mom wouldn't invite a child molester to spend the night in her home. But then I thought -- how does one actually recognize a child molester? Because I usually do only after their booking photo is released.
I have another daughter who is a junior in high school. She has friends who are freshman in college and we happen to live just twenty minutes away from the college. It is not inconceivable for her to get together with her friends for dinner in order to catch up. In fact, I would encourage that. Learn about college life! Listen to how fun it is to live in the dorms and meet all sorts of neat people and then perhaps that will encourage you to choose more seriously when you're considering colleges. And so it wouldn't be so out of the realm of possibilities to have my daughter get together with her freshman college friend... who happens to bring along a sophomore college guy friend because it's his birthday.... and now my 16-year old daughter is hanging out with a 20-year old.
I pray that 20-year old is interested in other 20-year old's. But that isn't always the case.
I think back to when I was a teenager. And I thought I knew all the answers. And I thought I could handle it all. And then I remember how I felt when I found myself in the middle of a situation I didn't know how to get out of. Because I was young. And I didn't have the experience or knowledge or know how.
I pray that every older person in my children's life will forever have my children's best interest in mind and not their own. And I pray that for your children as well.
It's easy to say the answer to keeping our children safe is to unplug the computer.... and I absolutely, 100% agree that there needs to be very real controls when it comes to children and the internet --- but we say the fault is the computer's because as parents there is a comfort in that.
A 13-year old should not be allowed on the internet.
There. We wrap it up nicely with a neat little bow so we can go back to our holiday prepping and reminding ourselves we still need a gift for the Sunday School teacher because the reality is we don't know how to keep our children forever safe and that reality scares the life out of us.
We don't know how to glance through society and pick out and stop the 21-year old creep who would actually drive all the way from Nebraska to a small town in Wisconsin to pick up a 13-year old girl.
We don't know how to stop the teenage boy who happens to be at the same house during a sleepover from inappropriately touching our daughters - and if you think that would never happen, I have a good friend of mine who would tell you otherwise. And she would unapologetically explain it is that exact same reason none of her children have ever been allowed to sleep over at anyone's house.
We don't know how to stop the college boy from trying his luck with the cute high school girl because, well, she looks older than what she actually is and she was totally flirting with him and so obviously she wants it.
As adults we need the answer to be unplug the computer because the real answer is so incredibly overwhelming.
Because the real answer involves raising moral children against a sexually charged society - where babies are put in bikinis at 9 months and girls with huge boobs sell chicken wings. Where images of men seducing women are casually displayed in ads painted on the side of a city bus and during a commercial break at the 6 o'clock showing of Wheel of Fortune.
The answer is raising young boys who believe with every fiber of their being that it shows true strength of moral character to respect a girl and not that it's cool to have sex by the time they're a freshman in high school because 'they're the man.'
The answer is raising girls who don't want to have sex just to get it over with because the pressure from their friends is just too much, but rather patiently waiting for the guy who will happily sit at the family dining room table and study with them; and not to even bother with the guy who defines a date by honking the horn in the driveway and parking alongside some cornfield for a quickie.
The answer is cleaning up song lyrics and music videos and what's flashing across our television sets. I grew up when George Michael was scandalous. My children are growing up when Lady Gaga is flopping around topless in a tank of water and Rose McGowan shows up on the red carpet wearing a see through dress and thong.
And even then the answer doesn't come close to figuring out how to identify and deal with the sexually deviant. The answer doesn't stop the kidnapper from taking a girl walking down a street so that the last image of her alive is him pulling her by the arm behind a local car wash. Even then the answer doesn't stop the seemingly nice looking man from grabbing the young lady running through the hiking trails and leaving her for dead.
The answer doesn't keep our children forever safe. It just does the best that we can.
For the rest we rely on our community.
We need our neighbors to keep an eye out and stop when they see something that doesn't look quite right.
We need our friends - and the friends of our children - to say something to us when they hear something concerning.
We need our community to pass out fliers, and share information on Facebook, and search in the nearby woods --
and we need them to pray.
We need to remember that we're all in this together. Each and every one of us should do our part to keep all the children safe because in today's society we need all the help we can get.
We need to remember that support proves far better than judgment and working together for the common good will reap benefits far more becoming than pointing fingers and laying blame.
This beautiful, young child is only 13 years old. This is a defining point in her life, but with the right guidance and support this will not define who she is.
Although, I wouldn't mind if the way we came together as a community defined who we are.
I believe very real controls should be in place with children and the use of computers. Computers should be located in main/open areas of the home and not used late at night. Webcam use needs to be clearly defined. In a world where families benefit from webcam conversations (like the father serving in the military overseas) some very candid discussions and absolute rules need to be in place. However, the reality is, we don't always have control over what happens in other homes. I know children who don't have their own Facebook account, but actually sign on using a friend's account password. In my belief, every bit helps - so control as much as you can in your own home, and educate, educate, educate! Also, make sure your children have someone they can go to - no questions asked - if they think something not quite right may be going on.