BALTIMORE - Every 40 seconds a child goes missing in the United States, and a family’s life is changed forever.
Fourteen years ago, Crystal Marie Haag was one of those children.
It was April 26, 1997. Crystal was planning on helping her friend babysit a family member that day. When they got to the house, Crystal decided to wait outside while the friend went in to gather the children. When the friend came back out, Crystal was gone. Assuming maybe Crystal just went home, the friend went about her day.
Later that night, she got a phone call. It was Crystal’s mother. She wanted to know where her daughter was. Crystal never came home that night.
The friend was surprised and told Crystal’s mother she thought Crystal had gone home hours ago. Crystal never did come home. At the age of 14, Crystal had disappeared.
Detective Terrence Parker was assigned Crystals case in 2003. She is now one of 48 cold cases actively being investigated by the Baltimore City Police Missing Person’s Unit.
“Usually in cases like that we would get something,” says Det. Parker. “Somebody would say, 'Oh yeah we saw her here,' or 'You know she was with so and so.' But, we really didn't get anything.”
When Det. Parker got the case, he decided to start all over again.
“You have to start from the beginning like it's a brand new case,” says Parker. He re-interviewed Crystal’s family and friends and talked to neighbors hoping one thing might lead to another.
He also solicited the help of the Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Washington, D.C.
NCMEC is a government funded non-profit that provides resources to local law enforcement, social services, and families in their search for missing children.
Robert Lowery is the Executive Director of the Missing Children’s Division. As a retired homicide detective, he knows the struggles Det. Parker faces.
NCMEC was created in 1984 as the result of an act of Congress and signed into law by President Ronald Reagan. Prior to their existence, the system in place for finding missing children was disorganized.
“Up until about 1982, law enforcement wasn't even required to enter a missing child into the database, although we were tracking stolen cars aggressively or stolen property through serial numbers or the NCIC database,” says Lowery. “We didn't put children on the same wavelength as we did property.”
The center was able to establish a better system and helped train law enforcement on how to better handle these cases. NCMEC estimates about 800,000 children will be reported missing this year. About 200,000 of them will be taken by family. Another 15,000 will be taken by a caretaker. The majority of them are running away from home.
Lowery says all cases, regardless of whether the child runs away or is kidnapped, are taken seriously.
“Many of our children get involved in prostitution, drugs, gang activity only because they need that protection from home,” says Lowery.
He adds that children taken by a non-custody parent or caretaker are also often the most at risk.
“These children are taken, they're often isolated, and they’re neglected. That non-custodial parent isn't allowed to enroll them in school; they're not allowed to leave the home,” says Lowery.
Many of them are hurt or later turn up dead.
“We get just as many children harmed or killed in those situations as with non-family.”
For families like Crystal’s, the hope is that she might still one day turn up. With cases like Elizabeth Smart and Jaycee Dugard, NCMEC says there is always hope.
“That's the thing that keeps us coming to work every day because there are an awful lot of these children out there, and we believe in our hearts that these cannot be the only ones,” says Lowery.
Det. Parker speaks with Crystal’s mother often about her hopes and fears.
“I was talking to the mom about a month ago and she was saying each year it's still getting harder,” says Det. Parker. “She was 14 when she left and she was saying right now she probably wouldn't even recognize her if she saw her.”
Crystal would be 28 now. To help with the search, NCMEC had forensic artist Stephen Loftin draw up a sketch of what Crystal might look like now. Loftin takes pictures of missing children’s parents and siblings and combines them with images of the missing child.
“We’re looking for those like characteristics the missing child shares with their biological family,” says Loftin.
That image of them is sent everywhere: in mailboxes across the country, in storefronts, and on billboards along busy interstates. The hope is that someone will call.
“As time goes on, hope seems to diminish, but's it's not gone. We never give up that hope,” says Lowery.
Even though Crystal’s case is now cold, Det. Parker says they will continue to look and fight, doing whatever they can to bring Crystal home to her family.
“They have a daily, daily pain or burden they are dealing with,” says Det. Parker. “If you can help relieve that burden, we're just asking if you can to do that.”
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