Gone Missing

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."

At 42, Kym Pasqualini is a slender blonde who bears more than a passing resemblance to Michelle Pfeiffer — or maybe Pfeiffer playing a scrappy single mom who won't give up, Erin Brockovich-style.

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.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske