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Recovery delights abduction experts

When Elizabeth Smart first disappeared, help arrived in Salt Lake City from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

On Wednesday, the office, based in Alexandria, Va., burst into celebration upon hearing that the now 15-year-old girl who had been missing since June 5 last year had been found alive in Sandy.

"This place is bedlam," said Ruben Rodriguez, director of the exploited children unit. "This is what we all live for. An FBI agent came in and told me. I'm a hard-bitten police officer, 20 years, and nothing really surprises me anymore, but this did. It's nice to know we can be wrong."

Experts certainly can be wrong. Rodriguez did not have figures immediately at hand, but he said getting a child back alive from a non-family abduction is "very rare" if the child has been held as long as Elizabeth was.

"After all this time and knowing what we know about how these children are preyed upon, I think it's very rare to have a child found alive," he said.

Ben Ermini, director of the center's missing children division, said when children go missing in general or in family-related custody disputes, it is not unusual to find children, but it depends on the circumstances. Some kidnappings are solved quickly and the child is reunited with family in short order. Others take more time.

"With family abductions, it's not unusual that a child would be recovered after several years, in fact," he said.

But Ermini said Elizabeth Smart's kidnapping, with all its unusual circumstances and the length of time she was held, make it exceptional.

"Off the top of my head — and I've been here for 14 years — I can't remember another case like this with similar type circumstances that went on this long and the child was recovered," Ermini said.

The National Incidence Study of Missing, Abducted, Run Away and Thrown Away Children done by the Department of Justice estimates there are about 58,200 non-family abductions in the United States each year.

About 115 of those are serious cases "where the child is abducted by a stranger, taken more than 50 miles, the abductor has no intention of releasing that child, the child may be killed or ransom requested," Ermini said.

Another study by the Washington State Attorney General's Office found that of the 600 cases that experts examined, when a child was abducted and later found murdered, 74 percent of the children had been killed within three hours of the kidnapping. The study said 95 percent were killed within 24 hours.

"If you look at those statistics and, with a case like this where the child was missing nine months, chances are fairly slim the child will be located unharmed," Ermini said. "When I heard it confirmed (that Elizabeth was alive), it was just wonderful."

Ermini said Ed and Lois Smart and Ed's brother Dave Smart came to the center to take part in focus groups to help develop "Team Adam," which is named after Adam Walsh, who was kidnapped and murdered in 1981. His parents, Reve and John Walsh, who hosts America's Most Wanted television show, co-founded the center.

Team Adam is intended to offer retired law enforcement officials to act as consultants to help police or families with all the resources the center can provide, Ermini said. "They were very helpful to get this program off the ground and they were wonderful to spend the time to help us here. They never lost faith that they would get their daughter back."

Rodriguez said he didn't think that Elizabeth's stunning recovery would offer false hope to parents of missing children who will never come home.

"For me as an advocate, I don't think there is such a thing as false hope. A majority of cases end very sadly. This is what we all live for — good results, positive results," Rodriguez said. "The sad part about this is it is not the norm."