In Brief

J U S T I C E    M A T T E R S
Never Forget
by Patty Wetterling

Jacob Wetterling was kidnapped on October 22, 1989, by a masked gunman while biking home from a convenience store with his brother and his best friend. He is still missing. Patty Wetterling, Jacob's mother, has worked to bring together nonprofit organizations that assist families with missing children. Mrs. Wetterling and her husband, Jerry, established the Jacob Wetterling Foundation to promote awareness of missing children.

Photo-Jacob Wetterling age 11
Jacob Wetterling at
age 11
Photo-Jacob Wetterling age 11
Age-enhanced photo of Jacob at age 19.
(Courtesy of NCMEC)

This is my son -- you have to find him! Please help. When children are stolen, it's worse than a nightmare. It never goes away. Your world is turned inside out and upside down. Your relationship with everything and everybody is changed. Some pieces may come back over time, but you are never completely whole again.

I found other parents going through similar tragedies and I'd shake my head in disbelief. This can't be. There can't be two missing children. Then I'd meet another . . . and another. When I found out the real numbers, I shuddered. What has happened to our children? Where are they? Who's doing this? How can we find them? What can we do to stop other families from having to go through this?

Statistics are necessary when evaluating the problem, but we can never get numbed by the numbers. It is vital that we remember that children are not statistics or case files. They are cherished and missed -- we search desperately to bring them back to rebuild their little lives, and the lives of all who were touched by their disappearance.

Most parents of missing children experience a split in their lives, a schism. A "before and after." Before Jacob's abduction I was a stay-at-home mom, contented with the full-time job of parenting four children. When he was stolen, a huge hole was left in my heart, one that never heals because it is constantly reopened. Every anniversary date, every time a child molester is caught, every significant lead or the weeks with no significant leads, we revisit what happened. I hurt all over when another child is taken anywhere in the country because I know the pain and the fear. Though we march forward and try to pick up the pieces, and life goes on all around us, our lives are forever changed.

I remember how I loved birthdays and all the special attention devoted to each of my children on their very own day. We focused on their favorite food, their friends and their favorite activity. With Jacob's birthday in February, we would take a break from the Minnesota cold and rent a suite at the Holiday Inn. He'd invite all his friends to swim and play basketball, ping-pong, and pool. We'd eat sloppy joes, but we called them sloppy Jakes. I prided myself on my designer cakes with hockey players or a Dukes of Hazzard car. He'd make a wish, blow out the candles, and they'd fall asleep watching a movie. It was all so much fun.

Jake's birthday is coming up and now I dread the significance of the day. Instead of celebrating, we have to look at how old he is now and wonder: What's he like? Does he remember? Will we find him? I still bake a cake, but I never blow out a candle without a special wish and a tear.

It's not something that "happened" 8 years ago or however long it's been for other parents. It's the day all of our lives changed. Most of us struggle with our marriages or other relationships. We hurt for the other children, who either don't understand or who, all of a sudden, know too much -- way beyond their years. We ask questions, we live off support from everyone. We survive what used to be joyous occasions. We pass through periods of depression, anger, excitement, and hope, and we make a promise. We don't become parents for a little while or just until something bad happens. It's a lifetime commitment. We fight many battles for our children; this one is just extremely difficult. We can't quit. We owe them a future.

The very nature of having a missing child leaves many people feeling helpless, and powerless. However, we believe that there is a lot that can be done, and we need everybody to help. We need to share what we have learned about child safety. We need to talk to our children. We know that kids can come home if we don't give up on them. We need everyday citizens to report suspicious situations involving children, to call the police.

If we're ever going to stop the kidnappings, we are going to have to stop the child molesters. We need citizens to file charges every time. We need every law enforcement agency to have a plan of action in case a child is taken, and we need an across-the-board cooperative effort in studying these cases. Working together with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) and with OJJDP law enforcement training programs, we can see the bigger picture of who takes these kids and how to get them back home. We need a commitment from everyone in this country that we are not going to tolerate the victimization of children. We can all be the eyes and ears protecting children. We need to remember that we are fighting for the lives of our missing children and there can be no lessening of our commitment, no matter how long it takes.

I received a special poem from a second grader after Jacob's kidnapping. She wrote this on the back of the missing flier we had distributed:

This song is to Jacob and Mom and Dad, it's called I love you. I love you Jacob, but I can't come give you a hug. But one thing I can do is find you in my heart and hold you.

Your friend, Molly

Please hold our missing children in your hearts, until we can hold them in our arms again.

Never forget. Never give up. You are our greatest hope.

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Juvenile Justice Journal   ·   Volume V   ·   Number 1   ·   May 1998