Pain never ends, and neither does search
It's been almost 13 years since Bob and Gay Smither lost their daughter to a child predator, but work goes on at the center they founded in Friendswood to find other missing children and teach families how to protect themselves.
And while the urgency of the Laura Recovery Center's mission has never waned, there have been setbacks. The center has been forced to cancel its fundraising galas for the last two years.
"We planned to have a gala in 2008, but Hurricane Ike came through and did a number on us," said Bob Walcutt, the center's executive director.
"This past year, we tried to have another gala, but with the economy, people were holding back, justifiably so.
"We're hoping this next year will be a much better year for everyone."
He knows from experience, however, it will be the worst year of some parents' lives. Walcutt spends much of his time working with distraught family members desperate to find a missing child.
It's the kind of thing I don't want any parent to go through," Walcutt said. To parents who lost a child to a predator, that child was the most important part of their lives."
The Laura Recovery Center, 906 Anna Lane in Friendswood, was established by the Smithers after the abduction and murder of their 12-year-old daughter, Laura Kate Smither.
The Smithers were inspired by the relationship that developed among the Friendswood Police Department, community members and their family during the search for Laura.
The nonprofit organization now works with law enforcement officials and community groups to search for missing children, and it strives to prevent abductions through educational programs and community presentations.
Whenever the center receives requests for help, staff members ask the callers if they've contacted the police, casework specialist Sandy Stafford said.
After making sure the police are on the case, center staff members interview family members about the circumstances of the disappearance and enter the information into a database.
A center caseworker is assigned to collaborate with law enforcement officials and to work with the family to decide how the center can best help from there.
If my child were missing I'd want someone like me helping, someone who wouldn't give up," Stafford said.
Though the center primarily addresses missing children, it did accept a request from Galveston County after Hurricane Ike to help search for missing people.
Within two hours of the request, the center had established a database comprising the names of 900 missing people.
After weeding out duplicates, the center trimmed the names to 740.
We are down to three now we are fairly certain are deceased, and nine cold cases for people who we believe are alive but can't contact," Stafford said.
Of the remaining people, 17 are dead, Stafford said, and the rest are survivors who were found.
In addition to search efforts, the center offers educational outreach through several programs, including:
Safe Kids Are Taught Early (SKATE): A 45-minute child-friendly presentation for youths in kindergarten through second grade, the program warns children about the methods a predator could use and the steps a child could take to recognize and avoid an abduction.
Choice: A 45-minute presentation aimed at teens covers such topics as running away, dating violence, Internet safety, substance abuse and positive choices.
Essentially, the message is choices you make in an instant can change your life in an instant," Stafford said.
The programs are free, but donations are encouraged.
The center also offers a wealth of materials and resources for parents and Walcutt is available for speaking engagements.
Walcutt urges parents to be ready to jump into action the moment a child goes missing, whether he's been abducted or has run away.
Parents don't always know who their child's friends' parents are; they don't know their names," Walcutt said.
The danger is if children take off as a runaway, they are susceptible to abduction by human traffickers. They are the scum of the earth."
It destroys the kid," Walcutt said.
He advises parents to have a good description of their children ready, including height, weight, scars, marks and tattoos, and a recent photo.
Parents can help prevent dangerous situations by monitoring and controlling their children's Internet and cell phone activity, Walcutt said.
If a child is taking nighttime calls, take away his phone or computer access during those hours, he advised.
Let's not make it so easy that a predator can be in their room at night."
Children and teens also can be exposed to predators through their online computer games, Walcutt said. Parents need to be tuned in and alert. That's all part of prevention."
For information about classes, call 281-482-LRCF (5723) or visit www.lrcf.org.
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