From Where I'm Standing

Musings on life during and after child-abduction by Melissa "Liss" Haviv

Missy Sokolsky is Dead. Again.

July20
Melissa "Liss" Haviv holds a photo of Missy Sokolsky

Melissa “Liss” Haviv holds a photo of Missy Sokolsky

I am having an abduction fallout day. I am 46 years old; my abduction was 36 years ago – over a quarter of a century in the past – yet it is having a real life impact on me today. Not an emotional-baggage kind of impact but a concrete one.

The illegal name change is throwing a spanner all these decades later.

My social security card was issued at birth to Melissa Sokolsky, because that, I suppose, is who I really am.

When I was 10 years old I became someone else. My mother stole a blank baptism certificate from a church and used that to get a driver’s license under a name she made up (you could do that back in the 70’s). Then she abducted me and turned me into someone else. Missy Sokolsky disappeared and Melissa Hart stepped out of thin air on the other side of the country. My abductor, I mean mother, changed her first name as well: Lee Thompson Sokolsky became Sharon Hart.

At age 16 I got my first driver’s license, as Melissa Hart. I don’t remember having any difficulties. When I applied for my first passport in my early 20’s the name on my Social Security card and the name on my driver’s license did not match. I was simply asked to supply a signed, notarized letter from someone who knew my story and would vouch that Melissa Hart and Melissa Sokolsky were the same person. The passport was issued to Melissa Hart (this was pre-9/11. Things were different then).

When I got married my name changed again. I had a little moment when filling out the marriage license, trying to figure out who was becoming Melissa Haviv since Melissa Hart was a made up name and Missy Sokolsky had been dead since I was 10. I did the pragmatic thing and went with Hart.

I hyphenated my married name for a number of years because I had built a life and roster of accomplishments as Melissa Hart and didn’t want to erase all that. I was Melissa Hart-Haviv for a long time (actually, Liss Hart-Haviv, choosing to use for my first name a nickname bestowed by someone I met on my big coming-of-age-year-spent-backpacking-solo-around-the-world-adventure).

Then I started Take Root. It reframed everything about how I viewed and understood my abduction and, as a result, the name Hart started to make my skin crawl. I needed to get it off me, the way you flick a spider off your skin. And, eventually, I wanted to get a step closer to who I was born. So I took that first name back, dropped the Hart from my married name, and became Melissa Haviv.

I have always used my birth-issued SSN along with whatever last name I was using at the time, and never had any issues arise about the names being different. My Social Security card is the only link I have to identify me as Melissa Sokolsky. All my known Sokolsky relatives, including my father and beloved grandmother, are dead. I have only this one, fragile link to prove that Melissa Sokolsky ever existed. I don’t want any link to Melissa Hart, but am obliged to keep listing it as my maiden name if I want old school friends to be able to find me on Facebook and in alumni books and such.

Today, I received a shock. I applied for services that required me to provide my SSN. The card that was issued as a result was issued to Melissa Hart. I had not provided that name on any of the paper work. Apparently, Hart became associated with my SSN somewhere along the line. It may have happened just through use. This new card must be accompanied by a photo ID. I have no photo ID as Melissa Hart, I do not want any photo ID as Melissa Hart, I do not want my SSN to be attached to Melissa Hart and I now have to undertake the hassle and hoops of explaining to multiple powers that be that this is a FICTITIOUS IDENTITY made up by my abductor mother. Wish me luck with that one.

Missy Sokolsky was killed off overnight while Melissa Hart will not die.

Family abduction, the gift that just keeps giving.

Melissa “Liss” Haviv is a Fulbright Scholar and the Executive Director of Take Root.

Are There Really Over 200,000 Family Abductions a Year?

June19

The Department of Justice’s second National Incidence Study of Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Thrownaway Children in America (NISMART II) concludes that there were 203,900 cases of family abduction in the year studied, and I have a problem with that.

My problem is that in many of those cases, there was no missing child.

This is a problem that extends far beyond NISMART: the definitions of “family abduction” and “custodial interference” are synonymous, and they shouldn’t be. While every case of family abduction is a case of custodial interference, not every case of custodial interference should be viewed as an act of child abduction.

The NISMART definition of family abduction is:
“the taking or keeping of a child by a family member in violation of a custody order, a decree, or other legitimate custodial rights, where the taking or keeping involved some element of concealment, flight, or intent to deprive a lawful custodian indefinitely of custodial privileges.”

The emphasis above is mine, because it is my opinion that the culprit word is the “or.” Concealment of the child is not required for a case to be counted as an abduction.

Consider this scenario: Mom and dad and their two kids move from Florida to Vermont for dad’s work. Everyone is miserable in Vermont. They miss Florida. Their family is in Florida, their friends are in Florida, they keep their beautiful home on the beach in Florida and happily escape there every chance they get. When mom and dad divorce, mom takes the kids back to the house that everyone thinks of as “home”…despite a custody order stating that dad gets to see the kids for dinner twice a week and overnights every second weekend. According to the NISMART definition, mom just engaged in an act of child abduction.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying it’s not terrible that mom cut off dad’s weekly visitation. What I am saying is that those children are not at risk for the profound physical and psychological jeopardy that accompanies missing child cases of family abduction; cases in which a child is concealed and subjected to the identity rupture and other dangers of being in isolation with a distressed care-giver.

I propose that cases of family abduction in which the child is at grave risk often wind up dismissed as custody battles because most of the cases classified as “family abduction” by NISMART ARE custody battles. They are cases best resolved by family court and do not require missing child response services.

As Take Root’s Clinical Director, Dr. Neil Kirkpatrick, concludes:

“Categorizing familial abduction cases, custodial interference cases, and contentious custody battle cases together in one lump based on overbroad criteria dilutes efforts at research and advocacy. There is simply too little in common between a child abducted and concealed from family members and a child whose parent keeps them extra days in violation of a custody agreement, to meaningfully place them in the same category. Additionally, the practice obscures other markers of risk and harm, thereby doing a disservice to meaningful intervention and legislation. There are numerous meaningful variables from which a precise, accurate and nuanced categorization system of child abduction can and should be developed.”

We must distinguish missing child cases of family abduction from other forms of custodial interference if we are to develop an adequate array of response, advocacy, and intervention services.

Melissa “Liss” Haviv is a Fulbright Scholar and the Executive Director of Take Root.

The Gift of a Happy Ending

May20

Kid Gloves Learning Lab

 

“Finding a missing child is called making a recovery, but being found is really just the very first step on a long and difficult road. It’s often not the happy ending people imagine.”

– Melissa Haviv, Executive Director Take Root

An abducted child comes back forever changed, needing help to recover. No one knows this better than the members of Take Root, who were all once abducted children. But traditional missing child services end once missing children are found, leaving reunited families on their own to figure out how to heal. Many never do. One out of every four members of Take Root has attempted suicide.

They tell us that being returned to parents equipped to help them navigate the road to recovery could have changed everything. But most came back to parents who were not given the tools and knowledge needed to help the family heal. Research indicates that less than 10% of parents reuniting with abducted children receive any kind of guidance.

Together, we can fix this.

Take Root’s decade of hands-on work with victims at all ages and stages of recovery has given us unprecedented knowledge and insight into how parents can best support children victimized by abduction – please help us get this wisdom into their hands. Help Take Root build the Kid Gloves for Parents Handling Abducted Children Learning Lab.  With materials designed by Take Root’s Clinical Director Dr. Neil Kirkpatrick, the lab will provide self-paced online training and tools to families in the process of recovery following long term abductions.

We need to raise $35,000 to fund this initiative. If we can raise $5,000 by National Missing Children’s Day on May 25 it will be doubled by an anonymous donor.  We don’t have a moment to lose!

If you think this initiative is important, please use the tools at crowdrise.com/kidgloves to join the fundraising team and create your own page to tell you own social network, in your own words, why you think the project needs to be funded.  And, of course, feel free to donate, online at takeroot.org/kidgloves or by check to Take Root, POB 930, Kalama WA 98625.

On behalf of abducted children everywhere,  thank you

(For more information on the need to expand recovery services, also see  this blog post)

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The Missing Side of Missing Child Services

May15

The Missing Side of Missing Child Services
Take Root is a missing child nonprofit providing the first and only peer support program available to former missing children after their abductions are over. Every member of Take Root was once an abducted child. One thing we’ve learned is that families, the media, and society often become unwitting co-conspirators in placing a terrible burden of unreasonable expectation on newly recovered children. Although the trauma of abduction does not disappear the day a missing child is found, children recovered from abductions encounter enormous pressure to be “back to normal” from virtually the moment they come home.

Friends, family and society urge newly found victims to “put it behind them” and “move on,” while media headlines outright proclaim “It’s Over!” Unfortunately, the issues with which the abductee must contend have not been resolved. In many cases, a whole new set of challenges is just emerging. But pundits remark on children’s remarkable resiliency and ability to “bounce back.” This chorus left some members of Take Root feeling as though there was something wrong with them for not rebounding rapidly, so they used suppression skills gained during the abduction to present to those around them what they thought others wanted to see.

Take Root members have also reported feeling responsible for the pain and suffering experienced by loved ones as a result of their abductions. Understanding that the people around them would feel better if they were ok, many pretended to be just fine once “found.” Additionally, Take Root members have reported that they wanted to fit in with peers and escape stigma. The recovered abductee wants a “return to normal” every bit as much as their friends and family do. Many Take Root members therefore report having pretended everything was back to normal even when it absolutely was not.

Abducted children become skilled at reading and responding to environmental cues about what is expected. Many Take Root members simply applied this same learned survival skill again during “recovery.” At Take Root we see firsthand, every day, the end result of this kind of suppression and lack of proper care and treatment. 1 out of every 4 members surveyed has attempted suicide.

The solution? As the Take Root motto says, we must expand our nation’s missing child services “beyond recovering missing children, to helping missing children recover.” Valiant starts have been made since Take Root formed in response to the glaring service gap a decade ago but they are baby steps. The lack of substantive research into the long term impact of child abduction results in an inability to adequately train mental health professionals in evidence-based practices. Specialists in post-abduction recovery are few and far between, and, operating based on extremely limited case experience – if any. Improving the “recovery” aspect of missing-child services must become a priority and funding streams need to be made available for such work. Despite the fact that the Missing Children’s Assistance Act specifically calls for funding projects and programs that address the needs of missing children after the abduction is over, no such work is currently being federally funded that we know of, and has not been since Take Root was an early casualty of the unfolding recession and attendant discretionary budget cuts back in 2007. This is a serious gap in America’s missing child response. We must close it so that those victimized by abduction are not revictimized by the lack of qualified aftercare services and support.

Melissa Haviv , the Executive Director of Take Root, is a Fulbright Scholar and former abducted child

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Cleveland Recoveries – What Happens Next?

May10

The following article was published on the website of the Association of Missing & Exploited Children’s Organizations (AMECO) earlier today. Thanks to Wendy and AMECO for championing this important message…

Missing Women Located in Cleveland – What Happens Next?
(c) AMECO 2013

The nation celebrated the recovery of Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus in Cleveland this week, but this “happy ending” is really only the beginning. What’s next for these three women?

The only body of research that captures direct experiences of formerly abducted children comes from Take Root, an organization that runs a support program for victims of child abduction when they are no longer missing. Their research shows that formerly abducted children are at a high risk for drug addiction, depression, and other medical problems. One in every four members of the Take Root support program has attempted suicide. Reunited families are often left on their own to figure out how to heal. Based on Take Root’s data, less than 10% receive the follow up care they need. “Yet children recovered from abductions encounter enormous pressure to be ‘back to normal’ from virtually the moment they come home,” says Melissa Haviv, Take Root’s Executive Director and a leading expert in the victimology of abduction. Haviv is also a former victim who, at the age of ten, was abducted and hidden under a fake identity for two years by her mother. She emphasizes, “The trauma of abduction does not disappear the day a missing child is found. Recovery is often a lifelong process.”

Wendy Jolley-Kabi, Executive Director of the Association of Missing and Exploited Children’s Organizations (AMECO) observes. “In recent years, a growing number of formerly long-term missing children have shared with America how they are moving forward with their lives and recovery.” Elizabeth Smart credits her family and faith with providing her with the strength to move forward and stresses the importance of focusing on the future not the past. Alicia Kozakiewicz acknowledges that she has nightmares and suffers from PTSD, but, like Elizabeth, has found purpose as an advocate to help other children. Shawn Hornbeck’s parents Pam and Craig Akers warn not to pressure the recovered family member to provide details of their ordeal when they first return home, but to let the missing person share their experience in their own time. Shawn himself shares that being in public can be frightening at first and emphasizes the importance of being surrounded by family during the healing process.

According to Dr. Neil Kirkpatrick, Clinical Director of Take Root, “the experience and process of being recovered is different for every child, based not only on the length of their abduction and what they experienced during the abduction, but on their experiences and relationships prior to abduction. In our experience, all too often the recovered child is bombarded with messages, both explicit and subtle, about how they ‘should’ feel about being recovered. The shock of recovery is significant, and it is import to allow recovered individuals and their families time to acclimate to this change at their own rate. Integrating into relationships with families and loved ones takes time and is best done in a private, safe environment, out of the public eye.”

As the celebrations die down in Cleveland over the coming days, Michelle, Amanda and Gina will grapple with what’s next for each of them. “They will face challenges and be forced to make decisions that few are equipped to make – when to share their stories, who to share them with, how to live life after 10 years of captivity and exploitation,” says Jolley-Kabi. “We’re so thankful these three young women have been found and we appreciate the brave voices of recovered children who have come before them. Melissa, Elizabeth, Alicia, Shawn and others offer hope for the future of missing children everywhere.”

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Identity Rupture

April9

TreeStump

The concept of “Identity Rupture” is so central to understanding the impact of long-term abduction that it seems prudent to dedicate a post to explaining it. The term is one coined nearly a decade ago to describe a phenomenon that was emerging as a key common experience binding members of Take Root across a wide variety of individual case circumstances. Today, Take Root defines Identity Rupture as abrupt, extreme changes in the following:

FACTS
Autobiographical facts about the child’s life, such as name, date of birth, place of birth, names of family members.
….all of which are often changed in order to keep the child hidden. These are basic building blocks of identity – concrete facts about who you are that are supposedly immutable. Unless, of course, you enter the witness protection program or go on the lam…or are abducted.

FACTORS
Environmental factors in the child’s life; the people, places and things with which the child is familiar.
…many of Take Root’s members lost everyone and everything they knew and loved, overnight. Those of you who have ever experienced the loss of a loved one, I invite you to try imagining extending that loss to include EVERYONE all at once….and not being afforded the opportunity to grieve or being offered any comfort. In fact, you have to pretend nothing out of the ordinary has happened….now imagine being 8 when this happens.

FORM
The expected and acceptable behaviors.
…our members almost always experienced abrupt shifts such as being taught before the abduction that lying is bad then being taught TO lie after being abducted; being taught that policemen help people then being taught to fear police; or, in almost every case, transitioning from being a child to being a source of emotional support, accomplice, protector, and/or caregiver for their taking parent after the abduction…many Rooters have described abduction as simply “the end of childhood.”

An important thing to note about Identity Rupture is that it occurs regardless of the taking parent’s motivation or intent. Children can experience Identity Rupture whether they are taken to flee abuse, or as an instrument of revenge, or for any reason in between. This truth is both a bitter pill for victims of domestic violence who abduct when the system fails to protect, and, a powerful insight for cases in which taking parents wield allegations of abuse that never actually occurred.

One final point of observation about the concept of Identity Rupture is that it has been central to Take Root’s ongoing internal discussions about the definition of abduction itself. Abduction seems, on the surface, like a simple term we all understand in the same way. Yet like an onion, the moment you remove the skin, multiple layers emerge…but that’s a subject for another post. For now I will leave you with this exquisite observation from Take Root founding member Kelly Yokum. She wrote in her blog, The Lonely Gerontologist:

“Part of who I am is rooted in that early experience of my dislocation of self, that identity rupture that occured and never came fully back together. Like a broken vase, glued back together, but never again that perfect fit, never again able to find that smooth edge where there used to be one full piece of glass. There is instead, a rough edge, a damaged edge, a side that can be hidden but, no matter which way you turn it, no matter how beautiful the flowers that fill it, it’s still there.”

Reply to NYT OpED on the Hague

March7

Ok, I see how this is going to go. I may never have that carefully, lovingly, planned and edited blog of my dreams. Post #2 is, like post #1, a quick response to a breaking media story…

This time it was this OpEd in the New York Times, on the Hague Convention on International Child Abduction. I submitted the following rebuttal OpEd, which, alas, was not selected for publication (two NYT op-eds on family abduction was too much to hope for, right?) so we shall self-publish:

As the Executive Director of Take Root, an NPO that runs the first and only support program for individuals who were abducted as children, I appreciated Joan Meier’s March 5 OpEd about the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. Most of the participants in Take Root’s support program for former abducted-children were abducted by a parent. Over the past decade we have amassed unprecedented knowledge on the impact of family abduction on such children and the adults they become. Returning abducted children to their place of habitual residence as required, absent certain defenses, by the Hague Convention eliminates two of the key dangers they face.

First, consider that parents never abduct when things are going well. Regardless of the parent’s motivation, family abduction is born from extreme emotional distress. When a distressed caregiver takes a child into isolation, that child is at risk regardless of the taking parent’s intent.

Second, the common traumatic experience that binds our membership across individual case circumstances is a degree of what we call “Identity Rupture,” which we define as extreme, abrupt changes in the autobiographical facts of the child’s life, all that is familiar, and the expected and acceptable behaviors.

In almost every case in our database, whether the child was taken to remove them from harm or as a pawn in their parent’s game, the identity rupture and transition from being a child to being a source of emotional support, accomplice, protector, and/or caregiver for an emotionally distressed taking parent meant the end of childhood. Children in all types of cases are typically burdened with adult fears and responsibilities, overwhelmed by incomprehensible – and unacknowledged – grief and loss, too often living a complex web of lies and deception to evade discovery, and left reeling from the shock of the identity rupture.

So while Take Root refutes the oft-repeated advocate’s mantra that “family abduction is child abuse” as hyperbolic given the reality of domestic violence, we do believe that family abduction is always child endangerment. Even in the guise of lesser evilism as a parent flees to protect life and limb, abduction itself can devastate the child.

So what are the solutions? I support the Hague (and UCCJEA, its domestic counterpart) convention of returning children to their home jurisdictions because this relieves the trauma of identity rupture and the danger of isolation with a distressed caregiver. However, that convention must be supported by home jurisdiction courts that are genuinely informed regarding the complex dynamics of family abduction, and by systemic protections for victims of domestic violence… if we perfected the latter we’d eliminate the question of whether abduction can ever be considered “justified” and would not be having this conversation to begin with. We need to improve the research and increase the public awareness around family abduction. And advocates for parents fleeing domestic violence and parents whose children are taken for less comprehensible reasons must start working together to formulate holistic conclusions, policies, and practices that encompass the complex, multifaceted issue that is family abduction.

Melissa Haviv , the Executive Director of Take Root, is a Fulbright Scholar and former abducted child

Why Increased Social Awareness of Family Abduction Can Lower the Incidence Rate and Duration

February20

cropped-70posterShot1.jpg

I was interviewed in the Huffington Post about family abduction today. Take Root sent a follow-up announcement asking supporters to share the article on social media to demonstrate interest in media coverage of this topic, because we have reason to believe that increased social awareness can decrease the incidence rate and shorten the duration of instances of family abduction. When someone wrote back to ask why, I realized the answer should be a public post.

Here is the reasoning and the data behind my assertion that increased social awareness of family abduction can play a role in decreasing the incidence rate and duration of instances:

1. 65% of Take Root’s family-abducted members who were surveyed report that their taking parent thought the abduction was in their kid’s best interest….but only 11% of those members agree with the taking parent’s assessment. This can be read as reinforcing abundant anecdotal evidence that many of the parents who abducted our members failed to comprehend the profound trauma and devastation being inflicted on the child (why should they be any different than most people? Few people can fully grasp the profound implications without education on the issue). We have other data demonstrating that among the cases in our membership there are abducting parents who would have been stopped by better information about the impact and outcomes for the child (I haven’t asked her, because we don’t speak, but I am pretty certain my own mother is one of them).

2. In every family abduction case in Take Root’s database, at least one other person besides the taking parent knew what the parent was planning beforehand and/or knew where the child was during the abduction . . . and remained silent. The more people understand the trauma inflicted on the child, the more likely it becomes that others will step forward to dissuade or report taking parents.

3. Not one of our members who was taken by a family member understood at the time of the event that they had been abducted and that it was an illegal act. Many members (myself included) were well into adulthood before learning that what happened to them as kids had a name and was a crime. And many have said that if they’d had a context for understanding the situation while it was occurring, they likely would have responded differently (for example, contacting left behind family or telling a teacher or policeman).

4. And, in line with #3, the more society as a whole grasps that family abduction is ABDUCTION and PROFOUNDLY TRAUMATIC and not a custody battle, the more likely it is that a teacher or policeman or anyone else in whom a family-abducted child confides will take appropriate action.

…so please, friends, visit the page containing the article in the Huffington Post today and use the social media sharing buttons you will find there to share the article on twitter and Facebook, as a way of demonstrating that there is interest in media coverage of family abduction! Here’s the link:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/tony-loftis/the-other-missing-kids_b_2717454.html

A great big thank you to Tony Loftis from Find Your Missing Child and his terrific editor, Kristin, for today’s coverage! I invite you to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Copyright © From Where I’m Standing [Why Increased Social Awareness of Family Abduction Can Lower the Incidence Rate and Duration], All Right Reserved. 2013.