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The Miracle of Jaycee Dugard

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I remember the days when my children were small and my greatest fear was losing them.
We've all had those moments as we stand on the supermarket checkout line with our child beside us, admonishing them distractedly as they pull down candies from the shelves. We turn around, prepared to take the child's hand and leave, and our child isn't there. The panic ripples through our bodies, lips parch, hearts pound, we grow weak with fear. We scream our child's name in a voice so primal, it isn't our own.

When my daughter was three, I drove to pick her up at nursery school only to be told by an assistant teacher that they couldn't find her. Once the school bus driver neglected to drop off six-year-old Ben who was sleeping in the back of the bus. At four, David played hide-and-seek so well that one afternoon we combed the neighborhood. Ten minutes for Ellie, over an hour for Ben and David: It didn't matter. When they were gone, every moment was an eternity. And then there were the nights when they got older - when curfews were missed and cell phones unanswered, until finally the teen showed up - and I didn't know whether to scold or embrace them. Looking back, the feelings of panic are still palpable.

It is astonishing how Jaycee Dugard's mother, Terry, survived the nearly two decades spent missing her child. Perhaps "survive" is the operative word - far different from "living." How did she manage to cling to hope after 11-year-old Jaycee was abducted while walking to the school bus in South Lake Tahoe, California? To think, Jaycee was a three-hour drive away from home.

Do a Google search for "Antioch, California," the town in which Jaycee Dugard spent 18 years as Philip Garrido's captive, and you will see that there are roughly 100,000 people living there - none of whom noticed anything strange about Philip Garrido's backyard.

According to Antioch's website, which depicts a vista of rolling hills under shimmering sunlight, there are many town committees: economic development, capital improvements, environmental agencies overseeing conservation of water, pollution, programs for a "healthy home," "green living," and one for household "Haz Waste." There are planning, engineering and building divisions, a neighborhood watch, the presence of Megan's Law Website so that sex offenders have to be registered, a tip line for unsolved crimes, and a crime prevention commission that holds 7 p.m. meetings on the third Monday of every month.

Maybe it's me, but I keep wondering why the neighbors, police department, planning and zoning board, and the department of health didn't find something the tiniest bit odd, let alone downright suspicious, given the living conditions at the Garrido house - the back yard covered with tarpaulins. Some of the kids called him "Creepy Phil," but that was the extent of it.

Yes, Garrido is guilty of an unfathomable crime, but in what appears to be a nearly idyllic California town, who else is guilty - by omission?

I keep thinking about the 1964 murder of 28-year-old Kitty Genovese near her home in Queens, N.Y. The fatal attack lasted nearly a half hour: Neighbors heard her screams and cries for help, but no one called the police until it was too late. People said they thought her screams might be those from a "lovers quarrel" or a "drunken brawl." Well, since when do we assume that lovers quarrels and drunken brawls are unworthy of intervention? Reports said that nearly a dozen people witnessed her attack either audibly or visually: Kitty died in the ambulance on her way to the hospital after someone finally called the police. And so the phrase "bystander effect" was coined - a phenomenon where the greater number of people present, witness to an incident or crime, the less likely people are to get involved. There is, as the definition says, a "diffusion of responsibility."

Is this what happened in the town of Antioch? People are now saying that when Jaycee and her "sisters" attended birthday parties for their children, they seemed like "sweet and happy girls." They mention now that their clothing was "different" from that of typical teens - they were more "conservative." Of course, the latter is merely a superficial glance. The point is, people were not unaware of the existence of Jaycee and her "sisters" ( who are, in fact, her daughters, Angel and Starlet, fathered by Garrido). No, they had never been to a doctor or dentist, and yes, they were home-schooled, but they were visible.

This visibility leads to my next question: Did people choose to look the other way? Did the local police department not do the math when it came to Garrido, a registered sex offender who did a stint at Leavenworth for rape and kidnapping? Garrido was not just your run-of-the-mill neighborhood pervert. Didn't anyone think that something or someone might be hiding or hidden under one of those tarps or in the shed that sat in the Garrido's littered backyard? What's the point of having a registered sex offender program in place (and Garrido re-registered annually on his birthday - he did not slip through the cracks) if the sex offender is just a name on a list?

So, what's the reason that no one saw a red flag and law enforcement didn't have enough probable cause for a detailed look-see under the guise of something as benign as sanitary conditions?

In the end, it took a mother's instinct - a mother who happens to be a police officer - to feel something beyond unsettling about Philip Garrido. Lisa Campbell, a police officer at the University of California (Berkeley) encountered Garrido with Angel and Starlet last Monday when he stopped in to propose a religious event called God's Desire. Campbell, who felt the two girls were "robotic" and "smiled too much," instinctively called upon Ally Jacobs, another police officer, who ran a records check and discovered Garrido's criminal history. Garrido's parole officer was called, and the rest is history.

Of course, hindsight is always 20/20, and it's always simpler to be an armchair quarterback than the player on the field - but what if someone had just been courageous or curious enough to have a closer look at Garrido's property given his background and the apparent living conditions?

What if we are all brave enough to go with our guts and cultivate our instincts as Lisa Campbell did? The worst that can happen is that we might be wrong.

Right: Last week I said I wouldn't blog about "news items" in this forum. Well, Jaycee Dugard is far more than a news item. She is, at her essence, every missing and endangered child out there. She was "news" 18 years ago and then disappeared (literally and figuratively) into the landscape. She is "news" again because her recovery is a miracle.

The next time you're surfing the web, check out www.missingkids.com. That's the website for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Please look carefully: One of those children could be right next door.

We need more miracles.

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