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By Weston Phippen
If a child is kidnapped, or simply disappears, the police call the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. But what if that missing child isn't exactly a child? What if she's 45, or even 85? What if she turned 18 just one day before her disappearance?
If that's the case, the cops call Kym Pasqualini. Or, at least, they did. That may change by the time this column is published.
Pasqualini is the founder and CEO of the Center for Missing Adults, a nonprofit agency that's been based in the Valley for 12 years. The center gets significantly less ink, and significantly less government support, than its kiddy counterpart but police officers will tell you it's virtually the only organization in the country willing to help locate the tens of thousands of missing people who are 18 years old or older. They'll also tell you it does excellent work.
But unless it gets a financial bailout fast, the Center for Missing Adults will disappear. Pasqualini gives it a month, tops and she's being optimistic. Thanks to partisan squabbling in Congress, her agency's funding has been in limbo for two years, even as its workload escalated dramatically in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Never flush with cash, the Center is now down to two paid employees, neither of whom were paid last week.
As for Pasqualini, well, she hasn't paid herself in more than a year. She's also cashed in her 401(k), taken out a home-equity loan, and said goodbye to employee after employee. As the agency's budget dropped from a high of $1 million to just about nothing, she's moved her shrinking staff twice. Today, they're squeezed into two cramped offices donated by the Glendale Police Department.
Just $15,000 is left in the agency's final federal grant, and it's been frozen: The feds won't release the money until Pasqualini files an overdue report on what she accomplished last quarter. But she says she can't do that because the employee who ran the computer program with the necessary statistical information has been laid off and, since the agency lost its office space, most of the relevant data now sits in boxes in Pasqualini's garage.
"I'm literally in a position where I have to get a loan just to keep going," Pasqualini says. And who's going to give a loan to a nonprofit agency that's rapidly headed for bankruptcy court?
At first, I thought there had to be a simple explanation. Maybe Pasqualini's agency had done lousy work. Maybe it'd squandered its funding on flat-screen TVs and fancy hotel rooms.
But I couldn't find even the slightest hint of scandal, much less negligence. Law enforcement, victims' families, and even congressional staffers praise the Center for Missing Adults.
And yet Congress is letting Pasqualini's work and the government's $4 million investment in it die.
Congresswoman Sue Myrick, R-North Carolina, sponsored the bill that originally earmarked $4 million for the adult center over a period of four years. That funding, included in a bill called Kristen's Act, expired in 2005, and Myrick's bill to reauthorize it has been rotting in committee ever since.
Myrick is frustrated, says her spokesman, Andy Polk: "It's absolutely a no-brainer to pass this."
The House Judiciary Committee hasn't even scheduled the reauthorization of Kristen's Act for a hearing, much less a vote.
Polk acknowledges that the $1 million annually given to the center is "a drop in the bucket," especially for an agency that does good work. But he's not confident that Congress will act quickly enough to save Pasqualini and her agency.
"The squeaky wheel gets the grease in Washington," he says. "To get this moving is going to take a lot of people contacting their congressman, and a lot of people calling the House Judiciary Committee."
Indeed, Pasqualini's life story would make good fodder for Oprah: She narrowly escaped a potential abductor at age 8, only to end up being abused by a relative and living on the streets by the time she was 13.
It actually was an episode of The Rolonda Show, the early-'90s afternoon TV talk show, that inspired Pasqualini to use her experience for good. As host Rolonda Watts interviewed the mothers of two abducted girls, Pasqualini stared the photos on her TV set, riveted, and realized, That could have been me.
"I looked at them and I cried," Pasqualini says. "Something clicked and I said, 'I've got to help.'"
Like many would-be Good Samaritans, Pasqualini initially focused exclusively on children. But it didn't take long on the job before she realized that the most desperate callers were searching for missing adults.
So Pasqualini soon expanded her mission. She still assists with searches for missing children in Arizona, but police officers say that her agency is the only clearinghouse nationally for information on missing adults.
The mission has kept them busy. The agency averages about 300 new calls every week. After Hurricane Katrina, the feds paid the center just $50,000 to take the lead in finding missing adults. That triggered an additional 13,502 calls 99 percent of which, Pasqualini says, are now resolved. At least four states have passed laws requiring that local law enforcement let anxious families know about the Center for Missing Adults.
Arizona isn't one of them, but it's benefited especially from Pasqualini's efforts. Glendale Police Detective Roger Geisler says that Pasqualini's organization has been "invaluable." Not only does it train law enforcement officers to deal with missing adults, but its workers also soothe worried families and handle media interviews. In local cases, they even take over door-to-door canvassing.
"The personnel Kym brings out know what questions to ask, and they spot the little red flags that pop up," Geisler says. "These are things a regular citizen wouldn't know how to do and it frees our officers up to deal with leads and do detective work."
Police officers say they know of no other agency that does the work handled by Pasqualini's center. "There are not very many people who speak up for adults," Geisler says. "It would be a great loss to the citizens of Phoenix to lose Kym."
Phoenix Police Sergeant Mary Roberts agrees. Her unit gets 10,000 reports of missing people every year. About 3,000 of them are adults.
"They are an unbelievable resource and tool for us," she says of the center. "What they do for the families . . . There is no way we have the time to sit on the phone and give any kind of empathy at all. Kym's organization does that. And they care. They actually care."
So why is the agency about to go under? Politics.
When Kristen's Act first passed in 2000, it was pushed by a Republican congresswoman, passed by a Republican House, and signed into law by President Bill Clinton. But the atmosphere in Washington has turned so poisonous that today's Democrat-run Judiciary Committee refuses even to schedule a hearing to reauthorize it.
One problem, perhaps, is the center's mission. Everyone gets excited about helping children, but it's too easy to assume that all missing adults are lowlifes. We forget about the straight-A college students who vanish, the Alzheimer's patients who have no idea how to fend for themselves, the freak accidents that lead to people disappearing without a trace.
Consider this: The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children gets close to $35 million annually in government grants. Even in the heyday of Kristen's Act, Pasqualini's organization maxed out at $936,000. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children pays more than that every year in payroll taxes alone!
"The focus right now is on missing children, which is good because so many of them are victimized and vulnerable," says Dr. Phil Randolph, president emeritus of Glendale Community College and the father of a missing young woman. "But in many cases, a missing adult is also somebody's child . . . The fact that [the Center for Missing Adults] is about to lose their funding leaves me incredulous."
One of Pasqualini's biggest problems is that she's not political. She got into her line of work because she sympathized with the families. She gets along marvelously with cops, too.
But she isn't savvy in the ways of Washington. She's never had a lobbyist or a professional fundraiser. She was at first leery of talking to New Times, telling a friend that she didn't want to "bite the hand that feeds me."
"Kym," the friend retorted, "you're not getting fed!"
When I called a Judiciary Committee staffer last week to inquire why the bill hadn't been scheduled for a hearing, he didn't even know what I was talking about that's how far off the radar the Center for Missing Adults is in D.C. And while Pasqualini considers Congressman Ed Pastor, D-Phoenix, her top supporter, Pastor declined to talk to me about the organization. His press secretary e-mailed a statement he'd made previously, calling for the reauthorization to be approved, but that's clearly not enough. Now is a time when the issue needs some real heat. Pastor could easily get on TV channels across the Valley agitating for the bill to go through something I've seen plenty of Democrats doing for SCHIP, the controversial children's insurance program. That simply isn't happening when it comes to the Center for Missing Adults.
And now it might be too late.
This year, according to the nonprofit group Citizens Against Government Waste, the federal government managed to find $4 million to build a train from the North Pole to a town with fewer than 1,000 people. It earmarked $4.5 million for products using shrimp heads. Hell, if you want to talk about big bucks, the feds are spending $1.2 billion this year alone on fighter jets.
No one can find a million dollars a year for the only agency in the country devoted to finding missing adults?
We'd all better hope we don't ever have a family member go missing.