Experts gather at town hall forum to discuss how to ‘Help Keep Kids Safe’


By Karen Billing

Last week the lobby of Cathedral Catholic High’s Guadalupe Theater was filled with large posters of missing children. Some of the faces, unfortunately, are well known, the ones we know who never came home like Chelsea King and Amber Dubois.

“San Diego has known too much tragedy. There are too many names etched into the hearts and minds of San Diego,” said Ernie Allen, co-founder of the International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children

Allen was a distinguished guest at Cathedral Catholic High’s Keep Kids Safe town hall forum on Jan. 30. The town hall presented an impressive gathering of authentic voices, advocates and experts on child exploitation, including kidnapping survivors Jessyca Mullenberg Christianson and Alicia Kozakiewicz, as well as Erin Runnion, the mother of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion who was kidnapped and murdered in 2002.

The forum topics and conversation were difficult to hear, but ultimately very important.

“The message of tonight is that it takes a whole community to keep kids safe,” Allen said.

The event was presented in partnership with The Chadwick Center for Children and Families at Rady Children’s Hospital. Cathedral Catholic senior James Morris and Bishop’s School student Mason Church, both young advocates for missing children, were also key in organizing the event.

The panel members were available as they were in San Diego last week participating in the San Diego International Conference on Child and Family Maltreatment.

“These are tough issues,” Allen said. “But there is hope.”

He said more missing kids are coming home safely in America than any other time—the law enforcement community is better prepared, laws are better, the technology is better and the public is more alert and aware.

However, thousands of children are still being victimized in the country. Allen said there are currently 795,500 reported missing children. Of those, 203,900 are family abductions.

One in five girls will be sexually abused before the age of 18 and one in 10 boys; however, only one in three children will tell anyone about it.

Allen said 89 percent of the female victims are assaulted between the age of 12 and 17; 29 percent are victimized by someone that they know.

There are more than 736,000 registered sex offenders and 90,000 are in California alone.

Allen said rapes and sexual assaults are declining but still two-thirds of sex offenders in state prisons have victimized children and 30 percent have assaulted more than one child.

Allen said that additionally 100,000 kids are trafficked for sex in this country, many of them leaving their homes voluntarily with a predator who has lured them or they are targeted out of the child welfare system.

“(Sex trafficking) is not just a problem on the other side of the world, it’s a problem in U.S. cities and the victims are U.S. kids,” Allen said.

Allen said one of his first cases with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, which he also co-founded, was 7-year-old Leticia Hernandez who was abducted from her front yard in Oceanside in 1989. He said during the 13-month search for her they believed they came close to finding her several times but toward the end of the investigation her body was recovered close to her home and it appeared the remains had been there for quite some time.

Allen was stung by criticism he received that they had created false hope in the public that they would find her.

“There’s no such thing as false hope,” Allen said. “What’s the alternative? Stop looking or assume the worst?”

One survivor’s story

“It takes courage for young people to stand up here and say ‘This happened to me and I don’t want it to happen to you,’” said Charles Wilson, the executive director of the Chadwick Center, which serves about 1,200 young children a year who are victims of child abuse and family violence.

Jessyca Mullenberg Christianson was one victim sharing her story in the hopes it will not happen to someone else.

Growing up in Wisconsin, by age 13 she was a survivor of abuse by three different pedophiles for almost a decade. In 1995 she was kidnapped by a neighbor who had told her that he could help get her written works published. He told her he would take her to see a publisher and she got into a car with him and dozed off, waking to find herself tied up. He took her to Houston, changed her name, cut and dyed her hair and made up a back-story that she would live by—she was his daughter and her mother and brother had been killed in an accident.

For three and a half months he kept her in a back room of a motel where he had got a job. He repeatedly beat her and sexually and psychologically abused her.

A woman in the motel recognized Jessyca’s kidnapper on an episode of “America’s Most Wanted” and called the authorities which led to her recovery and her kidnapper’s arrest. He was sentenced to 40 years in prison.

Mullenberg Christianson had to go through several surgeries to repair her jaw as she had been so badly beaten. She suffered psychological trauma and had trouble with bullies at school.

Despite her hardships in dealing with the resulting trauma, she was able to graduate college and got married. Although she was told she would likely not have children due to her abuse, she is now the mother of two.

She said she is forever grateful to John Walsh, who created “America’s Most Wanted” after his son Adam Walsh was kidnapped and murdered in 1981. She is also grateful to the woman who had the courage to make that phone call.

“Be involved in your community and if you come across a situation where something feels wrong, contact the authorities,” Mullenberg Christianson said. “You never know whose life you could be saving.”

Be brave

With the abduction and murder of her daughter Samantha, Erin Runnion went through every parent’s worst nightmare. She was able to turn her tragedy into a powerful legacy for her child with The Joyful Child Foundation, a non-profit dedicating to preventing child sexual abuse and abduction.

Samantha was kidnapped in 2002 out of her front yard in Orange County, when a man asked if she would help look for a lost puppy. Runnion said the media called that summer of 2002 the “Summer of Abductions” because Danielle Van Dam’s murder trial had just begun in San Diego and Elizabeth Smart had been missing for months.

Runnion said that Samantha had once asked her what she should do if anyone tried to take her.

“I really believed that never happens…I was wrong,” Erin said. “She was playing outside for less than five minutes. It was 11 days before she turned 6 years old, I had a trunk full of birthday presents.”

Her body was found the day after she was abducted. Alejandro Avila was sentenced to death for murder and sexual assault in 2005.

Looking for any kind of answers in her grief, Runnion went to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. She was shocked to find out that there were 58,000 non-family related abductions in the country. Samantha’s extreme case was “only” one of 115 annually where the children do not come home.

“One in five girls and one in 10 boys are being sexually abused. That is pandemic,” Runnion said. “It takes all of us to stop it…I ask you to find a way in your daily life to do what you can do to make the world a safer place for children and a safer place for you.”

The AMBER Alert system was enacted in California just days after Samantha’s murder and in its first month recovered 12 children and 96 children the rest of the year.

Runnion said the law enforcement training, resources and awareness to combat these crimes is always improving but it’s up to children and youth to “Be brave,” like Samantha scribbled on the bottom of many of the drawings she left behind.

“Recognize that you are worth protecting,” Runnion told the teens in the audience. “The largest number of victims are teenagers and most of you know the perpetrator…No one has the right to hurt you or make you uncomfortable.”

“Monsters” online

Of the 13 missing children on the posters on the stage at Cathedral, there was only one who came home alive: Alicia Kozakiewicz. She was 13 when she was abducted but now 24, Kozakiewicz is using her voice through The Alicia Project to share her story nationwide.

“These are so important,” Alicia said, gesturing to the posters. “Pay attention to them please.”

Kozakiewicz befriended her kidnapper in an online chat room and she was “groomed” and manipulated by him.

“He told me what I wanted to hear,” she said

The Internet predator persuaded her to meet him offline and in January of 2002 and she got into a car with a “monster.” He took her from her home in Philadelphia to Virginia where he kept her chained. She was raped, beaten and tortured for three days.

She got her “miracle” and was rescued when her abductor broadcasted her abuse online and another man reported it to the authorities.

“We don’t want this to happen to your families, we all have to play a part to keep each other safe because the monsters are real,” said Kozakiewicz, who spoke at the forum with her mother Mary Ann.

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