On April 24th, John Walsh, previous host of America’s Most Wanted and current host of CNN’s The Hunt, will speak at this year’s Aiken Child Advocacy Center fundraiser to heighten awareness and prevention of child abuse. The fundraiser will be a dinner held at the USCA Convocation Center from 6 to 8 p.m. Tickets at $50 each and tables of eight at $400 can be purchased at the Child Advocacy Center, 4231 Trolley Line Road, or online at www.cacofaiken.org. Tickets purchased online will be mailed or held at Will Call at the event. Through John Walsh’s two shows, many of us have become aware of the case of John’s son, Adam Walsh, who back in 1981, at the age of six, was abducted from a Florida mall and his remains were found two weeks later.
In the aftermath of Adam’s disappearance, John and his wife Revé, were frustrated to learn just how few tools the criminal justice system had in place to mount an investigation. Police departments largely operated independently, not only state-to-state, but county-to-county.
In 1981, while there were systems in place to track known, hardened criminals, there were no systems to track those who preyed on and abused children. There was no AMBER alert system, the collaborative system now in place through the U.S. Department of Justice to broadcast details of missing children 17 years or younger (AMBER stands for America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response). There was no national center to collect and disseminate information about missing children cases across the United States. Missing children’s photos had yet to appear on our milk cartons.
John Walsh realized he felt victimized by the weaknesses in the criminal justice system. While Adam’s bodily remains had been identified, the search for his killer languished. Knowing that the monstrous human being who killed his son was still at large, potentially preying on other young victims, clawed at John. “On the morning of July 27, 1981, I had a perfect life. I had my own business, I had a loving wife and a wonderful son, whom I kissed goodbye as I left for work and never saw again. My perfect life ended that afternoon, when Adam went missing.”
In the anger and agony that followed Adam’s disappearance and the discovery of his body, John realized he could let his son’s death destroy his life, or he could fight to make a difference for the next parents whose child went missing. Adam was the real victim, not John or Revé. And John decided to become an outspoken advocate for victims’ rights.
Engaging the Public
John and Revé believed Adam might have been saved had there been a quicker way to inform the public about his disappearance and ask for help in finding him. Adam’s remains were found 150 miles away from his abduction site, so getting the word out to a broader area might have brought in leads to finding Adam sooner.
In 1983, John Walsh produced a TV film entitled Adam, detailing his son’s disappearance and ending with a series of photos of missing children. Millions viewed the film, and its ratings suggested that the public was interested in the topic of missing children and trying to help. It even led to the recovery of at least one missing child.
In 1984, John Walsh helped found the National Center for Exploited and Missing Children, during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. A national hotline (1-(1-800-THE- LOST) was established where citizens could centrally report a missing child or a child abuse concern. In 1985, the first picture of a missing child, Etan Patz, appeared on a milk carton (Notably, Etan’s killer, Pedro Hernandez, finally was convicted just weeks ago on February 14, 2017!) In 1988, John Walsh became host of America’s Most Wanted, a show focused on engaging the public in helping solve open criminal cases, including but not limited to missing children cases. As computer systems evolved, so did the ability to “age enhance” a child’s photo, to depict what a small child might look like in present day as, say, a young teen.
Engaging Aiken’s Advocates
The Child Advocacy Center (CAC) of Aiken County, founded in 2005, provides a safe local environment and supportive services which promote healing to abused children and their families through intervention, treatment and prevention. In keeping with the vision of the National Center for Exploited and Missing Children, the CAC brings together the many different agencies that have a role in preventing, identifying, treating, and prosecuting child abuse cases. The CAC office provides a child-friendly setting in which children can be interviewed and medically examined in a single location by staff trained in forensic interviewing and in providing medical examinations.
CAC’s mission – as well as John Walsh’s advocacy – also calls for engaging you and all of us. Our collective eyes and ears represent the greatest asset to curbing child abuse and exploitation. In fact, a review of CAC’s caseload indicates the number of cases has grown each year since its founding. While one interpretation of those statistics is that child abuse is ramping up in our area, another is that Aiken residents are becoming better at recognizing potential abuse and acting on our suspicions and then reporting possible abuse cases.
Gayle Lofgren, executive director of CAC, indicated that one of the most critical messages she wants Aiken citizens to hear is that just making that call can be life-changing to a child. “We have the multidisciplinary team and the resources to assist in the investigation of allegations. No one should feel it is their duty to collect concrete evidence of abuse – just make the call to those trained to do that. Reports made in good faith have no negative repercussions. Persons reporting may remain anonymous if desired. Statistics in Aiken County show that 90-98% of children are abused by someone known to the child. Please, make the call if you are concerned!”
Becoming Aware and Becoming Active
What can you do?
- Pay attention to things going on around you.If you notice an adult inappropriately touching a child, or spending an inordinate amount of their personal free time socializing with children, call law enforcement to discuss your concerns. If they feel that further action is needed, they will schedule an appointment with the CAC. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children recently analyzed 12,900+ confirmed incidents and concluded that most attempted abductions occur when children are going to or coming home from school. Even if you don’t have children in your home, become aware of children when driving around in the early morning or afternoon.
- The Center also discovered that the five most common lures used to abduct children were offering a ride, presenting candy or sweets, asking questions, offering money, or using an animal (offering, looking for, or showing). Most children who escaped their would-be abductors did something proactive (screaming/ yelling to draw attention; running/physically pulling away) as opposed to being passive or polite. Talk with the children in your life about these scenarios and what they can do.
- Sign up for AMBER alerts on your cell phone. Most cell phones have a “Notifications” setting. At the very bottom of the list, you can elect to receive AMBER and Government alerts (government alerts include national disaster alerts). More information is available at www.amberalert.gov.
- Attend the CAC dinner on April 24 at the USCA Convocation Center. See beginning of story for event and ticket information.