Yesterday was absolutely the worst day of my entire life. We’ve all had those momentary freak-outs when you look outside and your child isn’t in the yard anymore — you run frantically to the door and start screaming their name and then see them running toward you, having ventured a couple of houses down to play with a neighbor’s child. All is well within a few seconds and you go on about your life, knowing your child is safe. You might scold them, let them know to never leave the area they’re in without letting you know, etc. But it’s fine. And your heart rate returns to normal and you carry on.
Yesterday wasn’t that kind of day for me. It was terrifying and horrible. It was my worst nightmare come true and thankfully it ended well and everyone is safe, but the hour that I couldn’t find my baby girl — well, it’s hard to describe the panic and the torment that I experienced. By the time I saw her walking up the street with my son, I was mentally and emotionally exhausted from the heart-wrenching anguish that gripped my soul for the prior 60 minutes.
I had an insane workday yesterday which was compounded by missing my husband since he just left to go back offshore for 5 weeks the day before. The days following him leaving are always hard for us — we have to adjust to him being gone and it’s always a process, no matter how many times he leaves. I was working on finalizing a rush project for a client then had two phone consultations from 12:45pm until 2:30pm. I had to pick Zoe up from the academy where she attends Pre-K at a quarter to three and then take her across the street to the elementary to register her for Kindergarten and pick Tre up from the school clinic because he was sick. Talia had running club so Avalyn would be on the bus by herself. Her bus arrives at home between 3:32 and 3:34 like clockwork every day. Never earlier, never later. We live 7 minutes away which gave me plenty of time to fill out the paperwork and let them do their quick assessment of Zoe’s Kindergarten readiness and make it home to retrieve Ava from the bus stop.
Or so I thought.
It took about 20 minutes to get everything done — I got Tre from the clinic on our way out of the school and we got back to the truck at 3:25. It was pushing it but we would get home right when the bus arrived… but then I got caught behind another bus and lost a couple of minutes during the commute. Ava is almost 8 years old and she’s a smart kid — surely if she got there a couple of minutes before me, she would just wait on the porch or go in the back yard to sit with Queen (our dog) until I pulled up, right? I pulled into the driveway at 3:37 and horror struck my heart — I got out of the truck and Ava was nowhere in sight. I yelled her name, walking around outside the house and getting no reply. I ran next door as I dialed the transportation department for Gwinnett County Schools, hoping she had gone there to sit with her friend Reese but they hadn’t seen her. The lady that answered got on the radio and said she would call me back when she got in touch with Ava’s driver. I jumped in the truck and drove around the corner to Talia’s best friend’s house and they hadn’t seen her either. I went to three other houses to check with some of the girls that ride her bus — they hadn’t seen her. Within a few minutes, I got confirmation that Avalyn was not still on the bus.
At that point, my chest got tight and my throat started to close. I was shaking and panicking — I saw two boys in the cul de sac playing basketball and asked them if they had been there for a while; they had. Had they seen Avalyn? They had not. My heart was racing and I just start babbling to God, “PLEASE help me find my baby, Lord, please! I don’t know what to do!” I could hear myself wheezing as I fumbled for my phone and dialed 9-1-1. The dispatcher answered and asked what my emergency was and I immediately just broke down sobbing and I could almost hear my own voice echo in my head as I told her, “I can’t find my little girl! Please send someone to help me find my baby. She’s gone!” She asked me for Ava’s name and ethnicity. She told me to calm down and tell her where Ava was last seen and what she was wearing. She asked for our address. Ugh. God. Think.
I felt completely out of control and helpless. I had a knot in my stomach, my chest was burning and my throat was so tight I could hardly breathe. I couldn’t spell our street name, I had to concentrate and close my eyes to even clear my head enough to remember what Avalyn had on yesterday morning when she left for school. Ok, black Vans, black capri-length tights. A silver shimmery sequined skirt with a black waist band. Her hair was down – black, curly hair that is just below her shoulders about 3 inches; precious, beautiful curls. She had a headband on. Green, I think. No, pink. Black? Oh, God I don’t remember. I just broke down into tears again — I told the dispatcher that I don’t know what kind of shirt she had on – it was chilly that morning and she had worn her fluffy pink coat with white designs on it and brown fur around the rim of the hood.
When the police pulled up I was trembling. I felt cold and I just kept trying to get the horrible images out of my head of all the things that could possibly be happening to my precious baby girl at that moment. Where was she? Who had her? I kept thinking of all the Amber Alerts I have received on my cell phone in the last few months — all the little girls who go missing and never come home. That could never happen to one of my kids, I’ve always told myself. If they aren’t with me or Barry, they are on the bus or at school. They’re never away from us. We’re always home. I don’t let them go out of my sight. Ava and Zoe aren’t allowed outside without their older siblings and all three of my oldest kids have cell phones with GPS tracking on them from Life360 which will navigate me directly to their exact location. I don’t let my kids leave the yard without being able to see them. When Tre walks 2 blocks to his best friend’s house, he can’t leave without his phone charged to at least 75% and normally I stay on the phone with him until he gets there and I talk to the boy’s grandmother to make sure Tre is at her house.
The police started asking me questions — who does she play with? Where would she go? These questions scared me even more because I don’t let my kids go anywhere most of the time. All of their friends come here. I don’t trust ANYONE with my babies’ safety. Where would Avalyn go??? Nowhere! But why wasn’t she home? Panic. Worst feeling ever. I kept wondering if I would spend the rest of my life with the fault of my daughter’s disappearance resting on me — if those 3-4 minutes had cost me my child. I can’t even put into words how horrific that thought is. Even typing this, knowing that she’s safe and everything is ok, I can’t stop crying.
The officers started combing the neighboorhood, checking in back yards, calling her name. Nothing. No sign of her. Tre was down in his room, scared to death. He was crying and worried for his little sister. I felt horrible. My baby was missing and it was my fault. I wasn’t here for her. I wasn’t home. She got off the bus and there was no one here to keep her safe and it was my fault. No one could find her and it was because I wasn’t here to look after her. 3 minutes, maybe 4 and that’s all it took for her to disappear. I tried to stay calm and rational but there is no such thing in a mother’s mind when you don’t know where your child is and you know how many sickos are out there, waiting to snatch them up. I just kept begging God to PLEASE not let me be that mother who never sees her kid again. I can’t be that mother. That can’t be my baby. And here I am with those tears flowing again, trying to get these words written out and my chest tight again, my throat making it hard to swallow and a knot in my stomach.
The thought is overwhelming.
Tre came running outside and said, “Mama, I’ve been praying. I was praying for Ava and asking God to help us find her and it popped in my head to go check at Diego’s house. Can I please run up there and ask them if they’ve seen her?!” Before I could answer, he just bolted down the road toward the big white house at the top of the hill… none of us even thought to check there. It’s over a block away and Ava isn’t allowed to go anywhere but toward the cul de sac – and only when someone is with her. She wouldn’t have left the yard on her own, would she? Not so quickly. She wouldn’t have left and made it a block away in 3 minutes. Would she?
The feeling of relief that washed over me when I saw Tre come back into view with Avalyn next to him is indescribable. My body went numb and my mind was paralyzed. I couldn’t even function — I had been in hyperdrive for an hour and now I just stood there, unable to think or move watching her come home. The officer who had come back to talk to me just before Tre came outside and have me tell him again what she looks like and describe Avalyn’s outfit asked me if I was okay and said that I could go see about her. I just took off running in her direction and grabbed her and started sobbing. She looked dumbfounded and had no idea what was going on. I suppose Tre briefed her on what had been happening for the last hour and she had a very apologetic look on her face and said, “You weren’t home and I didn’t know what to do. I went to Diego’s house because his mom has a daycare…”
I was so proud of her for making sure she would be safe. At the same time I felt so guilty that my being even 3-4 minutes late had put my 7-and-a-half year old little girl in a position to be responsible for maintaining her own safety. I talked to Barry on his break yesterday evening and he helped me feel a little better but I will miss EVERYTHING that could possibly have me running behind in the future because I could never bear to go through not knowing where one of my kids are again. I have always been extremely overprotective and this is one of those things that could never happen in our family — but it did and that was the longest hour of my entire life. Just not knowing. Imagining. It was torture. Before yesterday I hadn’t realized that Avalyn doesn’t even know my phone number! She is always with at least two of her siblings – Talia and Tre – who both have phones. She doesn’t go to anyone’s house. She is never away from me outside of our house unless she’s at school, period. Ever. We’ve never had a reason to put a plan into place for a situation like this because I’m literally always here. This doesn’t happen. But then, it did happen and none of us had any idea of what to do.
She did the right thing, finding a mother with a lot of kids where she would be safe. But, what if? … What if she hadn’t made it there? That’s one horrific ‘what if’ with so many possible endings. God covered her and she’s fine. But she could have not been fine. And that thought has haunted me for the last 18 hours… I keep having to catch my breath. I’m still trying to come back to life. But she’s safe. And this has changed the way I will do things forever – this has rocked me to my core and changed the way I think about every decision I make regarding my kids. What could happen? How do I prepare them? What would we do?
Ways To Keep Your Child Safe:
- Think ahead. Don’t wait until you’re going through it (like I did) to wish that you had a plan in place for the off-chance that you miss their bus drop-off (or any pick-up or drop-off) even by SECONDS. Tell them what to do if they ever arrive home and no one is there. If there is a neighbor you trust who is normally home during that time, talk to them NOW and ask them if it would be okay for your child to come sit at their house. Does your back yard have a privacy fence? Make sure your child knows how to get in and advise them to go there and wait for you. Whatever your plan entails, make sure that you communicate to your child EXACTLY what to do so that you know where they will be and who they will be with.
- Don’t just have one plan. Things sometimes unfold in the worst possible way — like yesterday, it just happened to be the day I needed to register Zoe for Kindergarten. Tre just happened to be sick and Talia just happened to have running club which meant that Avalyn just happened to get off the bus at home alone when no one was there to receive her because even though I left in plenty of time to make it home, I just happened to get stuck behind a slow bus on the way. That is FOUR things that happened to shape this situation. If ONE of those things had gone differently, it never would have happened. So don’t just plan for one child. Plan for each of them. If I had made a plan for Avalyn before, it would have involved at least either Tre or Talia because there would be SUCH a slim chance Ava would ever arrive home without at least one of them — and she still would not have been prepared. So design several scenarios so that each of your kids know what to do NO MATTER WHAT happens.
- Teach your child your phone number. Obviously this seems totally ridiculous to me that my 7 year old had never been taught how to call me, but if it was the case for us, I’m quite sure that it’s the case for many other children as well. Even if you don’t feel like they would ever need it — even if your kids are “never” out of your sight or other adult supervision, plan for the off-chance that one day they could end up that way and need to let you know where they are. If it’s doable for your family, add a line for your child so that they have their own phone and install Life360 on it, enable the GPS and keep tabs on where they are at all times. We will be adding a line to our plan for Avalyn so that she has a phone with her in the future. We will be setting tight restrictions on it but I need to be able to track her whereabouts just like the rest of the kids.
- Have all of the numbers you may need handy! I have all of the numbers to the kids’ schools, the transportation department (bus barn) and their bus drivers saved in my cell phone. Of course, bus drivers can’t answer until after the route but the bus barn can get them on the radio and the school always needs to know if something happens with a student on the way there or home!
- Instruct your child to call you! Even if Ava had my phone number, she may not have thought on her own to contact me… when the officer asked her if she knew my phone number, she seemed puzzled as though she hadn’t even thought about whether she knew my number until that point so it’s likely that even if I had taught her my number, she wouldn’t have called because she’d never been told that she would need to since she had never been prepared for this type of situation. I prepare my kids for EVERYTHING, but it had never dawned on me to prepare any of them for this.
- Do not teach your kids to find someone in uniform. As weird as that may sound, that is what I’ve always taught my kids. Anyone can put on a uniform whether they are actually a fireman, policeman, etc or not. I do not teach my kids to trust a uniform or a badge. Tell your kids to find a MOM with KIDS that are WITH her. I have talked to them about what to do if they get lost, but this situation was unique… and even so, Ava remembered that which immediately made her thing of Diego’s house since there was a MOM with a lot of KIDS (a home-based daycare center). She did what I told her to do, but no one had any idea she was there because there was no plan in place. Your child might do like mine and improvise very well, but your kid ending up safe won’t save you the grief of any period of time not knowing.
- If your child gets lost in a public place or away from home, tell them to STAY PUT! The worst thing a child can do is LEAVE an area where people will come look for them to go looking for someone to help find you. This happened in our neighborhood so Avalyn was familiar with the area and so are we, but a child lost in a park or in a large store shouldn’t wander around to find help or go outside to try to find you EVER.
- Stress to your child to NOT trust an adult they do not know. Your child should know to never go ANYWHERE with a stranger and that you would NEVER send a stranger to get them for you. Ever. Better yet, tell them to sit down right where they are and scream your name over and over until you get to them LOL It may alarm the hell out of passersby but it’s quite a foolproof way to alert to you their whereabouts!
- Skip it! If there is any remote possibility that making it to something you need to do will cause you to be late by even a few SECONDS, skip it. Reschedule. Figure something out. But don’t chance leaving your child to fend for his-or-herself. Many of us don’t realize how quickly a child can end up missing until we’re faced with a situation like this — and many of those children never make it home. Don’t let it be yours. Luck doesn’t keep kids safe. That’s our job as parents and I feel like I completely failed at doing that yesterday. Don’t put yourself — or your child — in the position of having to live with the dangers that could exist if you don’t make it on time. Be there. Always, always be there.
- Know what to do and don’t be afraid to call the cops. I was in shock. It took me nearly 10 minutes to call the police because I thought surely I would find her in the neighborhood. Even though we eventually did, I couldn’t help but to think had she not been in the neighborhood, that was ten minutes of time wasted that I should have had an army of people knocking doors down, putting out alerts and stopping cars to get to her. I will do everything in my power to ensure that nothing like this EVER happens again in our family with my children but if it should happen in the future 9-1-1 will be the first thing I do. Then I’ll go knocking and hopefully by the time they arrive I will have found my child, but if I haven’t I won’t have lost 10 minutes worth of time with the authorities looking also.
Keep your kids safe, people. It’s a cold, cruel world out there and I gave it access to my sweet, precious little girl yesterday. I don’t know that I will ever forgive myself for not being here, but I will absolutely never not be here again.