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Should Mom Who Took Kids and Hid for 31 Years Be Prosecuted?

Elaine Yates and her two young daughters, Kelly and Kimberly, disappeared on August 27, 1985, while her husband Russell Yates was at work. For the next 30 years, she hid with her girls. This week in Rhode Island, Elaine, now 69 years old, plead "not guilty" to abducting her own daughters.

Before the internet demonizes this mother, it’s important to note that a few weeks before she took the girls, Elaine ended up in the hospital after being hit by her husband during an argument. They were arguing because Elaine had found Russell with another woman, and it wasn't the first time.

Russell expected Elaine to forgive him like she had in the past, but things got heated. He alleges that during the fight she slapped him “two or three times.” Then as he pulled away from her, he hit his head, lost his temper and swung at her. He struck her on the head and the diamond ring he was wearing cut her forehead.

He took Elaine to South County Hospital to treat the gash. There, a social worker told Elaine about shelters for battered women. Elaine shared that her husband would find her if she didn’t leave Rhode Island.

If you’re wondering why Elaine didn’t go to the police when her husband hit her, especially after going to the hospital and having the abuse documented, you should keep in mind that in 1985, domestic violence was not a crime. Nope, it was considered a private matter to be dealt with privately, which left victims with little to no recourse.

Three weeks passed after the hospital incident before Russell came home to find that his wife and daughters were gone. A few months after they disappeared, Russell filed for custody because without legal custody, his children couldn’t get listed in missing-children networks since they were with their mother. He was awarded custody because his estranged wife, in hiding, did not contest the suit.

Russell spent more than 30 years trying to find his daughters. At the time of their disappearance, Kelly was 10 months old and Kimberly was 3 years old. They are now both in their 30s and living in Houston.

Kimberly, Kelly and their mother were located two days before Christmas, after authorities received an anonymous tip. Elaine, who legally changed her name to Liana Walberg in 2009, was arrested on Jan. 16.

Walberg is now out on $50,000 bail and will be allowed to return to Houston to live and work. But that's not the end of her legal troubles. On February 1, there will be hearing to determine her attorney and on February 15, there will be a pretrial conference.

Kimberly and Kelly have been given their father’s contact information, but have yet to reach out. He has no idea what their mother told them about him. He believes that it is now "up to them" to get in touch. As for what he'd like to say to them, if they do reach out: “I’d like to apologize to them for how I treated their mother,” he says.

The one thing Russell Yates doesn’t want is for Walberg to be prosecuted. “That isn’t going to help me, her or anybody else at this point," he tells the Washington Post. "I just want to see my kids.”

He’s right. It isn’t going to help anyone, and it sucks for everyone involved that it ever had to get to this point. No one comes out of this a winner. Perhaps things could have turned out differently if Rhode Island didn’t wait so damn long to criminalize domestic violence.

It is mind-boggling that domestic violence wasn’t considered a crime in Rhode Island until 1988. If Walberg was the victim of domestic abuse and feared for herself and her children, can you really blame her for taking off when she had no legal recourse?

Before you judge her, know that many others have done the same.

"It was not uncommon at the time for victims who were in serious danger to feel they had no option except to flee," says Deborah DeBare, executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "It was also not uncommon for victims to go underground and even change their name. It's a world of difference today."

DeBare remembers that police officers dispatched to homes for domestic violence prior to 1988 used to just tell assailants to go walk it off, so basically, cries for help and intervention from law enforcement were met with no help at all.

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If you or someone you know needs help, visit thehotline.org or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233/TTY 1-800-787-3224.

Photo via the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children

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