Desperate parents put their faith in one man's fury
Story by Liz Cerami Taylor ('92), Photos by Chris Thelen
Christiane Lops lived through every parent's
nightmare. When her daughters, Carmen and Claire, were abducted in
June 1995, she feared she would never see them again. To complicate
the crisis, her ex-
husband was the abductor. He had fled the family's home in Germany and taken the girls with him. For two years, Lops tried unsuccessfully to locate her children. With no new information to go on, authorities were ready to close the unsolved case.
They had not reckoned on the ferocity of David Thelen ('70), the founder and CEO of the Committee for Missing Children. "She called me, crying hysterically. They were going to give up. Child abduction is child abuse, even when it is committed by a parent. What gets me so angry is when someone, some agency official or bureaucrat, does not take that one obvious step to make a connection or to follow through. Almost every [parental abduction] problem in this country is bureaucratic," he rants. "It is maddening. And it is devastating to the parents."
Thelen's rage at injustice, at the system, is partly what drives him. The rest is pure compassion. For Christiane Lops and her girls, like so many others he has helped, he would not even consider giving up. Thelen had heard about Lops' situation and reached out to her. Through a two-year e-mail correspondence with her, he had learned that her children's paternal grandmother lived near Augusta, Ga. Thelen placed a call to the district attorney's office in Augusta and enlisted the help of local authorities in finding the girls.
Within 72 hours, the children were found living in South Carolina. Based on Thelen's tip, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation had followed the girls as they traveled between their grandmother's home in Georgia and their father's home in South Carolina. They had been living in South Carolina since June 1995, not long after they were abducted. Carmen and Claire were recovered at their grandmother's house in November 1997 and placed in the custody of the Department of Family and Children's Services. They had just come home from school, where they were enrolled under their own names.
Thelen called Lops with the joyful news. The next night, the elated mother was in the United States, and Thelen and his wife Karen ('70) opened the doors of their Lawrenceville, Ga., home for what they assumed would be a short visit. "We thought Christiane would be staying five days. She stayed six months," he recalls.
Even after their recovery, Carmen and Claire's case remained an eye-opener for Thelen as it bounced among local, state and federal courtrooms in Georgia and South Carolina. Confusion over jurisdiction and other issues delayed resolution until the U.S. Court of Appeals finally determined jurisdiction. The Thelens traveled with Lops on her many court dates, providing support and guidance. Throughout the process, Thelen stewed over the difficulties parents encountered as they tried to navigate the system, and was appalled by how little help it offered to them.
In May 1998, the case was finally resolved, and mother and daughters returned home to Germany. "Without David and Karen Thelen, I would have lost my children forever," Lops says. "Without their help, I would not have been able to fight during the six months I stayed in the U.S. to bring them back."
Carmen and Claire are just two of the many children whose recovery has been assisted by the Committee for Missing Children, established in 1991. David Thelen brings experience to this nonprofit organization from a distinguished career in public education, the educational supply industry, the Navy and the Virginia Air National Guard. Along the way, he earned a B.S. degree from Madison College and an M.Ed. from Virginia Commonwealth University, both in special education.
Accustomed to commanding respect and getting results as a classroom teacher and as a master sergeant, Thelen says that the idea for CMC evolved rather innocently one day when a direct-mail piece featuring missing children got his attention. As a father as well as a former teacher, Thelen knew he had to do something. "It's hard to explain, but you just have this innate love for children," he says. "It's as simple as that. You just don't want to see them suffer. Children need people. They need people to protect them."
At the time, Thelen was the owner of Early Childhood Resources, a manufacturer's rep firm for educational equipment and supplies. He called the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's phone number that he found on the mailer and asked if the agency would be interested in having photo partners. A collaboration was soon under way, and Thelen used his contacts within the school supply trade to sign up about 30 photo partners.
As the Committee for Missing Children began to take shape, the organization became a true family affair. "Karen came aboard because she did all the computer work, the correspondence and that kind of stuff," Thelen says of his wife, who is also a former teacher. "And both of us were doing this after our regular jobs." David made the committee his full-time job in 1995, when the organi-zation received its nonprofit status.
According to Thelen, the decision to focus those early efforts on the education market was a logical one. "Most children who are abducted by a family member will be re-enrolled in school someday under their own name or an assumed name," he says. "And one in six children who are photo-distributed are found through that method. So we felt that because we had access to the schools, that's where we should concentrate."
Thelen has been relentless. To date, CMC and its partners have printed more than two billion images of missing children on educational catalogs, inserts and box stuffers. As a result, the committee has assisted in the recovery of more than 1,200 children, primarily through photo distribution.
While these efforts continue, advocating for parents and directly assisting them in their recovery efforts have emerged to become what Thelen calls "the biggest thing we do." It is the result of Thelen's frustration from watching Christiane Lops' prolonged struggle to recover her children. On the committee's behalf, Thelen monitors news reports and reaches out to parents of missing children, offering assistance and a ready ear. Parents and others involved in recovery efforts can also contact CMC 24 hours a day via a toll-free hot line, which is transferred to the Thelen's home after regular office hours. As a result, parent advocacy efforts are all-consuming.
Thelen has mastered the system -- the laws, the jurisdictions, the procedures -- and he knows how and where to push. "I do irritate people because I don't take 'no' for an answer. I'll be the first to admit it," Thelen says. But it is exactly that same trait that endears him to parents who call him at all hours.
"It could be nothing more than answering the phone at 1:30 in the morning and talking to some mother or father who is crying like crazy because their 13-year-old daughter has run away," he says. "They think she's dead along the road. They think she's being raped." In such a case, Thelen calmly guides the frantic parent through the steps needed to report the missing child. "I ask them, 'Have you called the National Center?' I give them 1-800-THE-LOST, and I'll say 'Call them, then call me back in five minutes. I'll be waiting for your call.' And then you talk to them, whether it takes one or two hours." By keeping them busy, and reassuring them that 97 percent of all runaways return safely, Thelen helps even the most distraught parents get through that first night and often stays in touch in the days that follow until, he hopes, the child returns.
Karen Thelen knows all about those late night calls. Over the years, she has listened as her husband answered calls from worried parents. "He is a very good listener," says Karen. "I've sat and listened to him on the phone with parents. He is such a compassionate person."
In addition to helping with domestic cases of missing children, the organization has become a leader in the field of international abductions where a child is either removed from or brought into the United States. CMC has the distinction of being the only nonprofit organization in its field that has an office in Europe. It is located in Germany and run by Christiane Lops, hired by CMC's board of directors in 1998.
The committee's advocacy initiatives deal mainly with nonstranger abductions. It is a logical choice supported by the reality of missing child statistics. A 2002 government study estimated that the majority of the more than 700,000 children reported missing each year are either runaways or victims of family abductions. While stories about children taken by strangers receive the headlines, actually about 100 of these a year are stereotypical kidnappings for ransom, sexual abuse or worse.
"Law enforcement gears up quickly for them. They're covered well through media coverage," says Thelen, who believes that runaways and victims of family abductions deserve the same attention. Long-term abductions -- approximately 350,000 a year, according to the FBI -- are usually parental cases. "With family abductions, law enforcement doesn't want to touch it because it's a domestic dispute. But parental abduction is against the law in all 50 states. It's a violation of law, and yet it's just poorly covered. And that's why we're there."
Being "there" extends to CMC's commitment to being a clearinghouse for information about missing children. The organi-zation's Georgia office has a reference room packed with 400 binders containing information about missing child organizations, legal documents and media reports. The most helpful and commonly requested documents are housed on the committee's Web site, www.findthekids.org, and the site will soon feature monthly statistics on missing children from the FBI.
When children are successfully recovered, the Committee for Missing Children joins in the celebration. But not every day brings good news. Over the years, Thelen has learned how to deal with the emotional ups and downs, and he cites his education at JMU as part of the reason he is able to cope.
"I've learned that you really have to not get personally involved. I also just think I'm a good listener. It comes from the training of being a teacher," says Thelen. Letters from parents whose children were successfully recovered also buoy his spirits. "They tell me that they were about to give up all hope until they found our number. That's a great compliment and it helps me go the next day," he says.
Some days, though, even the best listener needs to talk. That's when Thelen visits a nearby business that he describes as a "good 'ole boy gas station." There he can find George Marlow, the committee's treasurer. "There are days you get very depressed," he says. "I'll just go down there and sit in his office for half an hour, just to talk."
It's also helpful for David and Karen Thelen to be able to rely on each other for support, something they have been doing for more than three decades. The couple, who married during their first semester at Madison in 1967, has fond memories of those days. Karen, a home economics major, recalls spending a semester at Varner House learning how to be married and keep house. "I had to be checked out of the house by my own husband," she says with a laugh.
Today Karen works full time at Brink's Inc., but she still spends many hours each week keeping the administrative side of things running smoothly and serving as CMC's secretary. "If it weren't for her, the committee wouldn't have made it," her husband says with admiration.
The Thelens say their biggest challenge is one many nonprofits face: raising money. While the organization welcomes private and corporate donations, the majority of its funding comes through telemarketing agencies, which retain a high portion of the funds raised to cover their expenses. "I have good telemarketers, but you don't get a lot of the money," Thelen laments. He has settled for the arrangement, however, because it allows him to devote his efforts to his first priority, the work of finding the children.
In his headquarters today, Thelen surrounds himself with the thousands of photos of missing children sent to him by parents desperate for their safe return. The effect is eerie. Their smiling innocence and heart-rending circumstances move him. Yet, somehow, Thelen remains undaunted by the crushing numbers of all those faces and the sheer enormity of the work ahead of him. Perhaps it is his rage. Surely it is his compassion.