Last year, Kym Pasqualini's nonprofit agency ran out of money.
For 15 years, the National Center for Missing Adults helped track the thousands of adults who go missing in this country every year — and did its best to reconnect them with their families. The agency operated on roughly $1 million annually, thanks to a federal grant.
But in 2005, the bipartisan bill that initially funded the grant expired. With no explanation, Congress failed to reauthorize it.
For two years, Pasqualini and her employees stayed alive by trimming operations, cutting services, taking pay cuts — and waiting for Congress to get its act together. By the fall of 2007, they were completely out of money.
I wrote a column about it at the time. I was touched by Pasqualini's story — a single mom from a hardscrabble background, she'd built the agency from nothing through hard work and a real passion for the people she was helping. So many people want to get involved when a cute child disappears, but Pasqualini had just as much passion for the cases that are ignored by law enforcement (and we media types, too). The mentally ill man whose family is worried sick. The troubled 20-something drifter.
Pasqualini knew, firsthand, how valuable her work was. She was obviously having trouble processing the fact that the government couldn't manage to cough up a lousy $1 million a year to keep the organization going.
After I wrote the column, I'd occasionally get updates about the status of Kristen's Act, the bill that would reauthorize funding for the center. (When it originally passed in 2000, the bill was named for Kristen Modafferi, a missing 18-year-old from North Carolina.) There was finally a hearing last summer, and I was pleased to see that the quality of the work done by the National Center for Missing Adults wasn't the issue. Pasqualini's work was praised. It's also been lauded in a recent report from the Congressional Research Service.
The House of Representatives finally approved reauthorization of Kristen's Act in September. But when it got to the Senate, it just . . . died. Four months later, it still hasn't gotten a hearing.
So I assumed Kym Pasqualini was moving on. She was broke 15 months ago. As a single mom, she surely had no choice; she'd have to give up the missing and go back to some form of gainful employment.
But last month, I met up with Pasqualini again, and I was absolutely floored by what she told me.
She's still doing the work.
No one has been paid in well over a year. But Pasqualini and three other volunteers have been spending dozens of hours each week trying to keep up the agency's database and deal with new missing-persons reports as they come in.
And, yes, the reports continue to come.
Tom Lauth, a private investigator in Indianapolis, has taken on the task of answering the phones and assisting families as they call in to report new disappearances. (His wife, Ratana, an engineer, also helps.) Pasqualini enters information about each new missing person into the agency's online database. Jason Smathers, an IT consultant in the Mohave Valley, donates technical support for the both the database and the phone system.
Pasqualini is, literally, broke. She faces liens from the IRS, personally and organizationally. But she just can't walk away.
"I don't want to stop this," Pasqualini says. "We do good. And we have friends out there we've worked with for 15 years. They still need us."
Honestly, I don't know whether to be impressed by her resiliency or horrified that things have come to this.
We all admire sacrifice. But this, I think, is a little bit crazy. No one would blame this agency for giving up.
No one, perhaps, except each and every one of us — if someone we loved went missing.
Last month, the National Center for Missing Adults received 500 phone calls. That's 500 families reporting a disappearance, needing help, and desperate to talk to a real, live person.
"That was something we always prided ourselves on," Kym Pasqualini tells me. "When a call came in, someone always answered the phone. Someone was there to help." These days, they're more likely to get voicemail. Although Lauth is quick to return calls, it's the best he can do. Some days, he'll handle as many as 30 calls.
This is the surreal part of the center's long, slow goodbye: Even as the agency has been stripped of funding, more and more law enforcement professionals are harnessing its services. Thanks to a push from families of missing adults, a growing number of states now require the police to tell people about the center when they file a missing-persons report. Just last year, Illinois became the sixth state, by my count, to do so.
It's an excellent idea. (The police seldom have the time to investigate all but the most suspicious disappearances.) But it means more and more work, and just a few harried volunteers to do it.
The agency's terrible finances have led to a near-unending series of crises. The center couldn't afford to keep its office suite in Peoria, so it moved to a much smaller office in Phoenix. Even that proved too much, so the agency moved the giant mainframe computer that houses its database to the Glendale Police Department. But, Lauth says, the department was nervous about keeping such a valuable piece of equipment without insurance — and the center couldn't afford insurance.
If not for a company in Michigan agreeing to house the equipment, it might have been the end.
And then there's the matter of the agency's files. For 15 years, Pasqualini has kept all hard copies in a set of seven lateral file cabinets, each of them six feet tall. They're now in her garage, but Pasqualini has fallen behind on her rent. She worries about finding a new place that's big enough for her family and the cabinets.
Over lunch, Pasqualini showed me a letter that her pre-teen daughter had written on the agency's behalf, begging for financial assistance. Her daughter had addressed it to the only person she could imagine stepping in and making things right: Hannah Montana's dad, Billy Ray Cyrus.
"Her birthday's coming up in nine days and we're about to be evicted," Pasqualini tells me, tears in her eyes. "And yet she keeps telling me, 'Mom, you can't stop. People depend on you.'"
It's unfathomable, talking to Pasqualini and Lauth and Smathers, that Congress hasn't been able to find the time, or the political will, to reauthorize Kristen's Act.
We're talking about $1 million a year. It took Congress so little time — barely two weeks — to scrape together $700 billion, with few strings attached, for the banking industry.
Yet legislators can't manage in four years to get their act together long enough to do the bare minimum for families who are missing someone they love? Appalling.
By now, of course, the agency is in such straits that Pasqualini doesn't think it would qualify, even if the Senate passes Kristen's Act. The grants are supposed to be competitive, and who's going to look twice at an agency with debt and unpaid taxes?
"Up to 2007, I have all our 990s, and it shows our financial stability," she says. "I had a strong agency. People said it was a well-oiled machine." But that's not true anymore, and Pasqualini knows it.
Tom Lauth, the private investigator, tells me that he's given up on Congress. He's waiting for an angel — someone to donate $500,000, enough to help the agency get back on its feet and start operating above the bare minimum again. "Then we'd have a base to go after bigger contributions," he says.
I wanted to laugh at him. A private donation of a half-million dollars in this economy?
But then again, Lauth has just spent a year working a near full-time job for nothing. So has Kym Pasqualini. And if they're willing to do that, to the point of near-financial ruin, who's to say there isn't really an angel out there, an angel with a big fat checkbook?
I'm not waiting for Billy Ray Cyrus to come through. But surely, somebody cares about this agency.
If not, this is definitely the end.
They're taking contributions right now at www.theyaremissed.org.
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