Drawing Strength from Sorrow: The Surviving Parents Coalition

(from left) Erin and Samantha Rinnion, Ed & Elizabeth Smart and Violet, Marc & Polly Klass


updated 10/12/2007 AT 12:00 PM ET

originally published 10/26/2007 AT 6:00 AM ET

When Marc Klaas’s 12-year-old daughter Polly was abducted from her bed in Petaluma, Calif., in 1993, he seemed to be coping well – until the second night after she went missing. “I got up and quietly left the hotel room, walked across the boulevard to a vacant supermarket parking lot, got down on my hands and knees and started screaming to God. I was out of my mind,” he says. One of the few sources of comfort he had during those 64 days before his only child’s body was found was David Collins, whose 10-year-old son vanished from a San Francisco street corner nine years earlier. Collins’s support is something Marc has never forgotten. “I glommed onto him,” Marc, 58, said. “He could relate to me. He never found out what happened to his son, but he was still standing nearly 10 years later, and that was huge.”

Since then Marc has been the one offering comfort and support to other parents of missing and abducted children, who in turn have offered support to other parents with similar tragedies. Along the way, many of the parents have become close friends. They’ve cried in each other’s arms, shown up at the trials of their children’s killers and been there for each other when it seemed like no one else understood their pain. “We all share membership in this sad club that no one wants to belong to,” says Erin Runnion, 32, whose daughter Samantha, 5, was abducted on July 15, 2002, and found dead the next day. “There’s a solidarity and an intimacy and a love for one another that is very healing.” Now they’ve taken the collective power of their grief and are channeling it into the Surviving Parents Coalition, a group they formed to lobby for strong anti-child-predator legislation. “There is strength in numbers,” says Runnion, “and this cause deserves an army.”

When Rebecca DeMauro’s 12-year-old daughter Andria was abducted and murdered in 1999 in Arkansas, the person she wanted most to speak to was someone she’d never met: Colleen Nick, whose 6-year-old daughter Morgan was abducted in 1995 in Arkansas and is still missing.

DeMauro: I was familiar with her case because it was so high-profile. I wanted to reach out to her. I was surrounded by people but I felt so alone. Nobody understood. Somebody got the message to her. One hour after we found out Andi had been murdered, Colleen called me, and we talked for probably two hours, and we cried together. And from that point on, we formed this emotional bond. She drove over two hours every day for Andi’s killer’s trial. When things were especially emotional [in court], she would write notes of encouragement to me, and somebody would tap me on the shoulder and hand them to me. She was a powerful force for me. Truck driver Mark Lunsford’s life was turned upside down in February 2005. His 9-year-old daughter Jessica was kidnapped from the Homosassa, Fla., trailer he shared with his parents, raped, then buried alive by John Couey, a registered sex offender whom a jury in March recommended be sentenced to death. Lunsford says he would not have gotten through the two years leading up to Couey’s trial without Runnion and Klaas.

Lunsford: They’re my family. They knew exactly how I felt. I’d be driving my truck for work and just bawling and telling Marc how my day was going and how I was feeling.

Runnion: I guess the bond between us all is that once your child has been taken, you relive that horror every time another story hits the news. When Molly [Bish] was found, I remember talking with Magi and trying to be of some comfort as I tried to muffle the sound of my own sobbing. Ed Smart was able to tap into the strength of others who’d been through his nightmare after his 14-year-old daughter Elizabeth was snatched from her bed in Salt Lake City in June 2002. But when Elizabeth returned home safely nine months later, he felt so guilty he couldn’t reach out to other coalition members.

Smart: I felt like, “Which one of my friends wouldn’t give their lives to have this happen to them – their child walks back in?” And I couldn’t talk to any of them. Finally Colleen Nick called me. She said she was so happy for me, and I said, “I really wanted to call you. I can’t tell you how happy we are, but … you’re still missing your child.” And she said, “Ed, it just gives me such hope. There’s one more child that’s been found, and it gives me hope that Morgan’s out there.”

Birthdays and other special occasions can be particularly hard:

DeMauro: This year it was eight years for us on the 15th of May, but Andi’s birthday is April 10, and I had a very difficult time because Melanie [her daughter] was going to be graduating from high school, and I never saw Andi graduate. And then Kirsten, my youngest daughter, was going to be turning 12, and Andi was murdered on her birthday. So I called Colleen, and I said, “I can’t breathe. I’m having a panic attack.” And she just sat on the phone with me while I tried to breathe. She’s just been amazing.

Magi and John Bish know their daughter Molly is never coming home. She disappeared from her lifeguard job in Massachusetts in 2000, and her remains were found three years later. Her killer has never been caught, but the Bishes have become crusaders for child ID kits, which have a child’s picture and fingerprints.

Magi Bish: The police came to the house on the second day after Molly disappeared, looking for one of these ID kits, and her picture was outdated, and there were no fingerprints. Marc Klaas said he’d send us some ID kits. We said, “What good is that going to do? We just want Molly.” But it gave us something to do; so when we got them, we went to the school board and asked if we could use them in the schools, and we did 1,500 children in two towns. It kind of spiraled after that, and other schools asked us to come and do these. We formed a foundation in Molly’s name, and one of the cornerstones is to get out there and do these. John and I go out and do this every weekend. We’ve now done 128,000 for free. Smart’s passion is the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, which requires stricter registration for sex offenders and stricter penalties for ones who don’t comply. It was signed into law last year but was not fully funded. He and the coalition are also pushing for legislation to hold police, judges and prosecutors accountable in crimes against children.

Smart: Experts say sex offenders are more prone to be under control when they know they’re being checked on. And we need oversight of judges and law-enforcement officers in charge of child safety. They must be accountable. This has got to be a priority because it really is homeland security right here in our own backyard.

The coalition is still in its infancy. The 13 founders do not hold regular meetings, mostly because everyone lives so far from each other. Much of the work is done via e-mail and phone calls, and membership is open to anyone whose child is missing or was abducted or murdered. But the coalition is about more than just a cause. It’s about friendship.

Magi Bish: My husband had prostate cancer surgery last November, a stroke a few weeks ago and is now facing heart surgery. I called everyone to let them know, and I got phone calls, e-mails and cards from everyone. Erin cried with me on the telephone. We all have different types of friends: neighborhood friends, school friends. Then there’s this other group of friends. They truly know the sadness no one else can ever really know. You need someone to hold you when you can’t stand. The calls, the e-mails, the cards – they’re like a long-distance hug.

For more information please visit WWW.SURVIVINGPARENTSCOALITION.ORG


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