On Oct. 22, 1989, life for the Wetterling family of St. Joseph, Minn. changed forever.
That was the day that 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling was abducted by a masked gunman while walking home from the store with his brother and a friend. At first his mother, Patty Wetterling, was at a loss, considering just getting out of bed in the morning to be a notable accomplishment. But soon she saw that her son was not the only victim of such tragedy, and as time went on she realized she could use her experience to help those other victims.
After over a quarter century of searching, Jacob's whereabouts are still unknown but Wetterling has held fast to the hope that one day she'll be able to look her son in the eye and tell him that she never gave up on finding him.
"I will never quit hoping for Jake," she said. "I hope one day we find out, where is he, what happened, who did this? I will not give up on the fact that he could be out there. We know more and more kids have come home after a long period of time."
Wetterling shared her story with more than 150 local professionals on Thursday at the Family Violence Intervention Project's 17th annual conference. The full-day event, held at the Conference and Event Center Niagara Falls on Old Falls Street, featured several different speakers who spoke on topics related to family violence, dealing with issues that impact children as well as adults.
Ann Marie Tucker, executive director of the Child Advocacy Center of Niagara, said the purpose of having Wetterling address the crowd was to inspire those who may be dealing with a similar experience not to give up hope. She said the skills Wetterling has developed since this tragedy thrust her into the public eye can help remind others that there's always a reason to keep trying.
"It's inspiration and hope," Tucker said. "She has such courage. It's anything, one, that we can learn from her, but (also) how can we better help the people that we work with, the families that we serve. If she can hold out hope so can we."
Wetterling explained that just because a child has been missing for several years doesn't mean they will never be found. She encouraged people to remember that children featured in AMBER alerts or on fliers are real children with families who miss them and they ought not to be forgotten.
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children,4,835 children were recovered after missing for six months or longer. Additionally, 468 of them were recovered after missing for more than five years and 228 of them were missing for more than 10 years.
"Most of these kids are found because someone is aware of the problem and reports it," Wetterling said. "I believe someone knows who took Jacob."
Throughout the course of the last 26 years there have been several developments in the Wetterling case, though all of them failed to lead to Jacob being reunited with his family.
She stressed that "typical abduction," like what happened to her son, is growing less frequent while Internet-related crimes are on the rise. She said that it's important to fight for a world that's fair and that gives children a chance to make the most of their lives.
"These kids should have the opportunity to grow up and follow their dreams," Wetterling said. "My hope is that they will never have to endure sexual exploitation or abduction."