Lessons from the emotional Elizabeth Smart case

The family conducted an exemplary search. Still, she moved around undetected.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

An air of relief and celebration are still buoying Salt Lake City with the return of Elizabeth Smart. Blue balloons now rise above the trees that had been tied with blue ribbons. Friends and neighbors are still visiting, bringing covered casseroles and exchanging big hugs.

Yet the unanswered questions about the teenager's nine-month ordeal - and the very fact of her abduction at gunpoint from the safety of her own room - still tap deep anxieties in millions of parents. People like Kathy Griffin, the mother of five-year-old Song.

"I don't let her out of my sight, even when we're playing in the front yard," says the Montclair, N.J., mother. "You never know who could drive by."

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That's exactly the kind of attitude that child-safety experts applaud and work to encourage. At the same time, however they note that disappearances like Elizabeth's are extremely rare.

The Justice Department estimates there were 58,000 "nonparent" abductions last year. That includes people trying to pull a child into a car or coax them into an alley. In the vast majority of them, the children got away.

Last year, only 115 of the cases fit the most commonly understood definition of a kidnapping, where a child is held overnight or longer. More than 60 percent of them return home safely.

"We don't want parents to live in fear, but to be cautious," says Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "You need to be alert, you need to be aware, and you think about what you would do if it happened to you."

From the start, experts say the Smart family did exactly what they were supposed to do. They contacted police, organized friends and family for search parties, and got pictures of the earnest young blonde into every shop window they could. Then they stoked the media with regular press conferences. Even as the months drew on and the media limelight faded, they kept up their hope and the pressure.

"They did everything right," says Ken Wooden, founder of Child Lures Prevention, an educational nonprofit in Shelburne, Vt. "They were still doing the searches, giving out pictures up until she was found. They were not giving up."

The family's constant pleas and prayers engaged the entire community, an affluent suburb that was stunned out of a sense of safety by the girl's disappearance last June. Neighbors joined with police and students and teachers from local schools to scour nearby hillsides and deserts.

"We were taking turns walking the hillsides, manning booths," says Amy Wadsworth, principal of Wasatch Elementary, where two of the Smart children still attend. "Everyone just rose up to help."

As the months rolled on, many people began to give up hope that she would be found alive, even though her family remained steadfast in their faith. Indeed, experts say that the longer a child is missing, the more likely it is that she or he has come to harm.

"Missing kids and stranger-abducted kids are often found, but rarely after such a long period of time," says David Finkelhor of the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire at Durham.

So when Elizabeth was discovered Wednesday with drifter Brian Mitchell and his wife, Wanda Eileen Barzze, just 15 miles from her home, the relief was palpable. When students and teachers at Wasatch heard the news, they began hugging, crying, and cheering. "Everybody felt a real participation in the celebration of it. It felt very personal," says Ms. Wadsworth.

Still, many questions remain about the unusual abduction. Some wonder why the 15-year-old was unable to get away on her own. Others are concerned that police did not shift their focus fast enough to finding Mr. Mitchell after Elizabeth's sister identified him in early February.

The self-proclaimed prophet to the homeless, who calls himself Emmanuel, had been a regular fixture in the Salt Lake area. Lois Smart, Elizabeth's mother, had given him $5 when he was panhandling and hired him to work on their roof in November 2001. The family didn't see him after that, but others did, even after the abduction.

Leigh Barber, a flooring contractor, said she ran into Mitchell and his wife and Elizabeth, who was wearing a wig and robe, four times one day - once within blocks of the Smart home.

"Perhaps because they were so visible and so unusual, they were also easily dismissed," says Ms. Barber, who thought they were part of a sect.

But child-safety experts say they're exactly the kind of people that children should be warned about - particularly if they try to engage the children in conversation. That's a lesson Kathy Griffin regularly repeats to Song.

"She's smart and she knows to stay away from strangers," she says. "But still, she's only 5 and she's only 40 pounds, and someone could just pick her up. So I'm always careful."

Katharine Biele contributed to this report from Salt Lake City.

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