When Missing Teens Return, the Challenge of Reintegration Remains

Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight, who disappeared separately in Cleveland between 2002 and 2004, made national headlines when they were rescued a few weeks ago. Their rescue is the end of one chapter of their stories -- but the very beginning of a long road to recovery.

According to the FBI, slightly fewer than half million children reported missing in 2012, though the National Runaway Safeline thinks this number is higher. Regardless of what statistic you use for missing and runaway children, some of the hardest work begins when the child returns home.

Children and families in the days and weeks after recovery face a new and unique challenge. "The most important thing is to understand that reintegration is a process," says Duane Bowers, a counselor who specializes in trauma recovery. "It's not something that happens overnight. It's a process; and it's a difficult one."

In a particularly apt metaphor, Bowers likens families to mobiles. "When you think of a family, think of a mobile that's hanging from the ceiling. When you cut one of the pieces loose, the whole thing goes out of kilter," he says. But eventually, families find new a balance with different people picking up the extra burdens. When a child returns, the balance once again must be adjusted.

"When the missing person does return, taking them back into the family structure becomes difficult because the family structure and everyone involved have been deeply affected by this trauma," Bowers says.

He adds, "A return home is never completely smooth -- with challenges for the family and the individual alike, which would certainly be the case with the three women in Cleveland."

In the nine-plus years these women were gone, they changed and their families changed.

"The family really has to think about including an absolute stranger into its structure," Bowers says. "Because they don't know this person, and this person doesn't know them. And the fallacy that a lot of families make is that they try to incorporate the 13-year-old back into the family when you're actually dealing with a 23-year-old."

Think of your life and how much it has changed in the past decade. Now imagine having lost brother or sister for those 10 years, knowing how much you have changed and what happened to them. Now imagine reintegrating them into the family.

"It's almost like integrating an in-law in," Bowers says. "They're a stranger, but they're family. So, now you have to accommodate them and put them in the structure somewhere."

Fortunately, a few really good organizations can help parents navigate the reentry of missing teens. Bowers points to Team HOPE and the Association of Missing and Exploited Children's Organizations as resources families can turn to help at the reintegration process.

If the process is hard for families, what about the missing? What will they have to do to reintegrate into their new/old lives?

"They have been isolated as teenagers for 10 years," Duane said. "Their psyches have not been able to grow. They haven't had role models. So now that they're out of this situation, they will have to learn to grow... they're going to have to do some hard work on catching up developmentally to where they need to be."

In the last 10 years, the Internet has totally changed the way young people communicate. For example, cell phones were not nearly as prevalent a decade ago and Facebook did not exist. To meet and make new friends, the women will have to develop basic social skills that teenagers learn in their schools, communities, and religious organizations.

"The only family they've had for 10 years is each other," Bowers says. "And it's going to be very hard for each of them to go into a new family structure out of the family they created amongst themselves. The one they created amongst themselves, of course, was created out of a negative situation."

"Now, let's add to that, trauma," Bowers continues. "They have all experienced trauma. They are going to work through this, the symptoms of trauma and the situations of trauma, which is not easy at all. So, they've got their work really cut out for them over the next few years."

Moving on is difficult. Different families and children handle that process with differing degrees of ease and success. I wish the women in Cleveland the smoothest path possible and know there is hope with people like Duane Bowers around.