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The Day I Found a Missing Child

Photograph by Twenty20

I was walking down a busy street in New York City when I saw her: a tiny little girl with bouncing curls, purple barrettes in her hair, a pink dress and matching shoes. She wandered down the sidewalk, so unencumbered, with no adult by her side. I immediately sensed that something was very wrong. Where was her caregiver, running after her, telling her to stop, to wait? A second later, she turned and walked right into oncoming traffic. She appeared to not even see the approaching cars. I ran to catch up to her and saw a city bus coming right toward her little body as I rushed into the street, grabbed her tiny hand and walked her quickly to the curb. I looked around, expecting too see a hysterical, frenzied parent running towards her but there was no one in sight. She was all alone. Who was this child, who could only be 3 at most, on her own in New York City?

I ran to catch up to her and saw a city bus coming right towards her little body as I rushed into the street, grabbed her tiny hand and walked her quickly to the curb.

I bent down to talk to her, said hello and asked where her mommy or daddy was. She looked at me for only a split second, had no reaction to what had just happened and was unable to answer, sustain eye contact or absorb what I had said. She then began to talk in an inaudible pitch, using words that I could not discern. As a children's therapist, I recognized this look and knew that she was possibly a special-needs child. I stayed close to her and continued to look everywhere. I needed to locate her caregiver. She could not have just come out of nowhere. I looked in every direction, up and down the block, across the street, but there was no one coming for her. Another woman who saw what had happened ran over and we both began to look around together.

Thankfully, the child stood next to us and did not appear distressed or try to run away. Then we noticed what was in her hand, a pack of Dora stickers. “I think the Hallmark store, a few blocks away, sells these stickers," said the other woman, "maybe she came from there.” We decided to try the store, but if her mom was not there, we would call 911.

I bent down and shared with her that we were going to walk to the store where she got the stickers and that I was going to hold her hand to be sure she was safe. She didn't respond or look at me, but when I gently took her hand, she let me hold it and walked with me down the block. When we got there, I asked the cashier if he recognized this child and knew if anyone had come in with her. The clerk looked alarmed and said he had seen her walk in earlier and that her mother was in the last aisle.

The store was mostly empty and when we got to aisle seven, we saw a 30-something woman standing there, looking at photo albums and stationery. "Excuse me, is this your daughter?" I asked. The women looked up in surprise. “Yes,” she said and began quickly walking towards us.

"We found her outside walking down Third Avenue alone. She was walking into the middle of the street and was almost hit by a bus."

"Oh my god!" the woman yelled out and ran to her daughter, scooping her up and hugging her. The little girl looked at her mom in recognition and put her small hands on her mom’s face and smiled. Her mother repeatedly whispered to her, “You are not supposed to walk away.”

"She's autistic,” her mother said to us in between panicked gasps, “and sometimes she wanders off. Thank you for your help."

As we spoke, I could see her mother’s expression turn from confusion to panic and shame. She looked really uncomfortable and could barely make eye contact. After I left the store, I thought about the mixed reactions people often have when these types of things happen. Some declaring that the mom was “careless and negligent,” with others arguing that these things can happen "so fast with children." Everyone with their pitchforks out, ready to eviscerate or exonerate the parent.

Yes, it’s true that the child was quite young and, with her having a known tendency to wander off, she needed extra supervision. As I found her several blocks away, she had been out of that store for several minutes. It was hard not to wonder how her mom did not notice that she was gone. However, the child had no obvious signs of any mistreatment. Had we seen any suspicious bruises or if she looked neglected or starved, I would have taken other actions. She was clean and well cared for. Her mom was visibly shaken over what happened. Maybe she really lost track of time and thought her daughter was just a few steps away, just looking at those stickers. Maybe she never imagined that her daughter could really push open the front door of the store and walk out.

I am relieved that I saw that child on that street and that this other woman and I were able to find the child’s mother. I thought about our role as a community and how, god forbid, if any of us ever had a moment where our children were in need, hopefully another person would step in and help.

These days, some people are so quick to go into attack mode when someone makes a mistake. We have all seen hateful internet threads viciously going after someone, often misinterpreting the facts or jumping to conclusions without even reading the article. There are always those commenters who are hell-bent on being abusive for no discernible reason. While I am certainly not suggesting we minimize any type of neglect or the importance of appropriate supervision of toddlers but if there isn't evidence of abuse when something happens quickly, which is often the case with children, do we really need to shame someone more?

There is likely nothing we could say to that particular mom that she was not already saying to herself. I saw the shame in her face, the look of horror the instant she realized what happened and she registered all of the terrifying "what ifs." Yes, it could have ended much worse and hopefully this would be a jarring reminder of how these things can unfold. I am relieved that I saw that child on that street and that this other woman and I were able to find the child’s mother. I thought about our role as a community and how, god forbid, if any of us ever had a moment where our children were in need, hopefully another person would step in and help.

This situation reminded me of when I was younger and my classmates and I were stung by a nest of yellow jackets at school during a nature walk. I was OK but one of my friends had been stung over 19 times and needed to go to the emergency room. My mom arrived to pick me up but no one could reach this boy’s mother, so when the ambulance came for him, my mom didn't want him to be alone. We rode behind the ambulance to the hospital to stay with him. My mom never left his side until his mother finally showed up. We didn't think “how dare his mom not answer her phone” back then, or “what kind of parent doesn't call back right away.” My mom just watched him, as if he was ours, until his mother got there. There was an overwhelming sense that my classmate was our responsibility until we could reach his parents.

Do we, as a community, still feel that same sense of responsibility toward each other’s children? Has the common good been replaced by instant judgment and scorn? Hopefully, all of us would run into that street. Because if someone else's child is in need, or is lost, is hurt or in distress, they become everybody's child. "There is no such thing as other people's children.

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