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When your child goes missing

SCV woman describes terror of her experience

Posted: October 19, 2008 7:23 p.m.
Updated: December 21, 2008 5:00 a.m.
 
Karen Rathstone called her mother every day after arriving home from school.

So when Joy Rathstone didn’t hear from her 14-year-old daughter on Sept. 15, she feared the worst.
“In my heart I feel like I am never going to see her again,” the Valencia mother of five said tearfully.

Karen (whose real name is not used in this story) was Rathstone’s third child to disappear.

Photos on Karen’s My-Space and Photobucket pages lead Joy to believe the missing girl is living with her father in Arizona.

Most chilling of all: In some of the pictures, Karen is brandishing a gun.

Retrieving the children might seem a simple enough task. But Rathstone’s story shows that divorced or separated parents don’t always have cut-and-dried cases, even if they have 100 percent custody.

“It’s frustrating,” Rathstone said, even more so because she believes she knows where the children are.
The Web site pictures are the latest in a slew of evidence that confirms, at least for Joy, that her daughter is with the man who Los Angeles Family Court decided in 2006 should not be allowed around his children unless supervised by an officer of the court.

But the case involves shades of gray, local sheriffs’ officials said.

“Is she really a missing person if she is with her dad?” said Detective Deegan of the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station COBRA Unit.

Deegan, who asked that his first name be withheld because of his work in gang enforcement, handled the initial investigation.

He declined to comment specifically on the investigation but said there is very little deputies can do when teenagers run away.

“(Karen’s) case is more complex than a runaway child,” Joy said. Her ex-husband is violating a court order by being in the child’s presence.

That court order is enforceable even when the infraction occurs out of state, sheriff’s Lt. Brenda Cambra said.

“It’s a Family Court restraining order, which is a civil court order. Breaking a civil court order is a misdemeanor, and we are not going to Arizona to arrest someone for a misdemeanor,” she said.

Deputies did submit the case to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Child Abduction Unit, Cambra said. The hope was that the District Attorney’s Office would change the case from a missing person’s investigation to a child abduction, she said.

However, the District Attorney’s Office rejected the case. “There isn’t enough evidence to prove (Karen) was abducted,” Cambra said.

The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office declined comment on the case.

Deputies told Rathstone she needed to take her case to Arizona. “I need to hire an attorney and file the restraining order in Tucson so it applies there,” she said.

She also needs to prove Karen is there. The pictures are not enough, Rathstone said. “The police have to see him with (Karen) to prove there is a crime,” she said.

Karen is the third child to leave her in favor of her ex-husband, Rathstone said. An older daughter left in 2006 and gave birth to a baby a year later, she said.

Joy contacted Tucson police in 2006 when her son allegedly took off with his father. She asked the police to execute a keep-the-peace order.

She told them she had a restraining order and police were directed to the father’s home and asked about the missing boy.

But there was a catch-22.

“You can’t just knock on the door and ask to search the house, and (the father) knows that,” Rathstone said.

“He knows the police need a search warrant, and getting a search warrant is difficult because we can’t prove definitely the children are there unless we search the house,” she said.

She hasn’t seen her son since October 2006.

Karen’s Internet pictures may not be enough to alarm Arizona law enforcement, said Cambra, who confirmed no search warrant was issued. “She doesn’t seem upset in the pictures. She is smiling and posing in the pictures.”

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children knows about Karen’s case, spokeswoman Julie Patrick said.

The agency is armed with a team of attorneys and provides information about services and federal programs for missing and exploited children and their families, Patrick said.

The agency declined comment on the case since it is still open, she said.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, more than 203,900 children are victims of family abductions. That dwarfs the 58,200 children taking by abductors who are not family members, Patrick said.

Joy doesn’t know whether to hire an attorney and file the restraining order with the Tucson police. “I just don’t know what good that is going to do,” she said.

“It hurts. As a mother your number one thing is taking care of your family, and to have your kids walk away is heart breaking.”

Rathstone said her only option now may be turning her attention to protecting her two remaining children.

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