Children lost in blink of an eye

Pat Haley - Contributing Columnist

“He’s dragging my son! I can’t watch this,” the mother of the 3-year-old who recently fell into the gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo told the 911 operator. “I cannot. I can’t watch.”

The mother can be heard calling down to the boy — “Be calm, Be calm!” as the gorilla stood the boy up, looked him over, and tugged on his pants.

According to witnesses, the mother’s attention was drawn away for seconds, and then the toddler was up and inside before you knew it.

Social media has screamed its outrage at the mother and at the aoo because of the death of the gorilla. Some demanded the parents be prosecuted. The Cincinnati Police Department swiftly conducted a criminal investigation and determined no criminal charges would be filed.

We all know a child can disappear the second you turn your back or get distracted, and in the blink of an eye get away from their parents. I don’t know all the details, but according to news sources, the man who raised the gorilla may have said it best. “Ninety-nine percent of people on both sides of the fence, pro or con, don’t have a clue what they’re talking about. I wasn’t there and they weren’t either,” the man told the newspaper.

The fear surrounding this incident reminded me of the time a child got away from her parents while on a camping trip in Clinton County, during my tenure as Clinton County Sheriff. Although the child in the gorilla incident was in much more immediate danger, the fear was similar. A child’s life was in danger.

One evening about dusk, my phone rang and the communications officer on the other end of the phone said, “Sheriff, we just received a call that a young girl is missing from one of the local campgrounds. Her parents are frantic.”

I quickly spoke to a deputy sheriff at the scene who provided me a quick assessment of the situation. “There is a young girl, about five or six years old, missing at the camp,” the deputy told me. “It appears we will need all the assistance we can muster to find her,” he said.

I jumped into my uniform and strapped on my gun belt before walking to the window to survey the weather outside. I could almost feel the steady, cold rain as it fell upon the glass. It was the kind of evening one wanted to stay warm and sheltered indoors. I knew it was going to be a long, cold, wet night.

Upon arrival at the scene, the parents told me the little girl had wandered away from their campsite, and became lost in the 214-acre heavily wooded camp that surrounded a small lake.

Her parents said she was Autistic and would probably seek shelter somewhere. I wondered at the time if, like so many children, she had seen something that had caught her attention, and innocently followed whatever it might have been. Perhaps it had been a small bird, or a kitten. Regardless, the young girl had wandered away, and in a heartbeat, life changed for those around her.

Within an hour, we were joined in our search by other first responders, law enforcement, firefighters, fellow campers and volunteers.

We searched the area until 11 o’clock that night. Due to the overpowering darkness, reluctantly, we called off the search until the next day. We knew with a missing child time was critically important.

The following morning, as the sun rose, the searchers reassembled. Together, everyone formed a long line, and walked into the thick, muddy woods searching for the lost child. We called her name, time and time again, hoping for a response.

After several hours, near mid-morning, I heard one of the deputies yell, “Here she is! She’s OK. She’s inside a tree.” The little girl had found a hollowed-out tree during the night, curled up inside and fell asleep.

The following Sunday when I went to church, the priest spoke about the Good Shepherd. In the story, the Shepherd had a flock of 100 sheep. At some point, he realized there were only 99. The Shepherd could easily have said, “Ah, well, what’s one lamb?” However, the parable went on to say, there was great rejoicing and celebrating when the missing sheep was found safe.

In both cases, although notably different, people found two children who were in great danger, and took the necessary steps to help make them safe. In the one scenario, the sacrificing of the gorilla was regrettable and heartbreaking, but necessary so a child might live.

Our hearts break when we hear stories of children at risk. Sometimes all we can do is to give our children and our grandchildren an extra hug at night, protect them the best we can, and let the Good Lord take care of the rest.

Pat Haley is a Clinton County Commissioner.

Pat Haley

Contributing Columnist