Looking out for missing children

Mohamed Kubesh lives in Chicago. He came to the United States from Ethiopia some 20 years ago. His phone number is unlisted. I haven’t talked with him. As far as I know, we have nothing in common, except that we both have children.

I can’t say I know how Kubesh felt when his children disappeared. I never walked in his shoes. His quest to find his son Saleem, age 3, and daughter Sumaia, 4, is for me unknown territory.

On Everett’s Evergreen Way, amid the blur of car lots and teriyaki takeouts, is a nondescript office building. Inside, its walls are covered with pictures of smiling young faces. Text accompanying those smiles suggests not happiness, but pain and mistrust.

"Missing from Kansas City, Kan." "Missing since 12/29/99." "Missing from Hyrum, Utah."

Inside the offices of the Operation Lookout National Center for Missing Youth, people know how Mohamed Kubesh felt.

"When he first contacted us, his children had been missing about nine months. He was wondering ‘Who do I call? What do I do?’ It was very difficult," said Mike Gibson, who founded the nonprofit organization with his wife, Melody, in 1984.

"He was sad almost to the point of hopelessness," Operation Lookout caseworker Amy Rogers said of Kubesh.

Kubesh’s wife, whom he wed in an arranged marriage in Ethiopia, had brought family members to Chicago, Rogers said. "Her sisters and parents moved to Seattle. She and the kids came for a visit and wanted to stay, without informing him," the caseworker said. "He knew where she was, but she wasn’t making the kids available. Six months after she came to Seattle, she moved."

Kubesh was referred to Operation Lookout by the King County Sheriff’s Office. Detective David Barnard of King County’s Child Find unit handled the case after officials in Cook County, Ill., issued a warrant for the wife’s arrest on a custodial interference charge, Gibson said.

The case was resolved more easily than some because the family made no effort to hide or change names. Kubesh was reunited with his family Nov. 11 after Barnard picked up the children and took the mother into custody, according to Gibson.

"We rarely get to see the kids," Gibson said. "But when all was said and done, he brought them up here. They were cute little kids, very bright. You could see they had missed him and were very comfortable with him."

Operation Lookout provides free services to families whose under-18 children are missing. This year, the organization has handled roughly 700 requests, the majority involving runaways, followed by family abductions. Stranger abductions are rare, Gibson said.

Help can include computer searches, poster distribution, coordination with police, referrals for legal and social services, travel aid and emotional support.

"Part of our responsibility is helping them understand the process," Gibson said.

Operation Lookout’s role can be as mundane as finding motel rooms for waiting parents. The group’s job is not police work, explained Detective Lee Malkow of the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office, who handles custodial interference cases here.

Malkow often works closely with Gibson, enough so that Gibson refers to the detective as "an unsung hero in Snohomish County."

"I trust Mike, he’s an excellent resource," Malkow said. "Mike can really assist a family with the social aspect of the situation. He can line up just about anything for anybody. I can’t necessarily sit down and hold a hand. I can’t get my work done that way."

She has used the organization to line up plane tickets, hotel rooms and even to consider a case’s facts.

"Mike doesn’t just accept at face value what people tell him, and they don’t always say the same thing to us as they say to him," she said. "We work together to find the truth."

When it comes to parental abductions, law enforcement and Operation Lookout are on the same page.

"It’s an extremely selfish act, it’s all about themselves," Malkow said. "I tell witnesses that every child deserves to know both parents, although that doesn’t mean every child should live with both parents."

Rarely, Gibson agreed, is an abduction about what’s best for a child. "It’s about power and control. I sometimes hear, ‘I took the kids to protect them,’ but it’s rare indeed that the allegations of an abductor turn out to be true," he said.

As for the argument that children are safe if they’re with a parent, Detective Carolyn Griffin of King County’s Child Find said "when you have a parent taking a child, it’s not in that child’s interest."

"They take them on the run and live a fugitive lifestyle; that’s not healthy."

The ultimate goal, Rogers said, "is for both parents to have contact."

"A lot of times, both parents have problems, but problems can be worked out," Malkow added.

In her work, Malkow has seen a lot of selfishness, a lot of twisted truth. She detects nothing but goodwill in the Gibsons’ work. Mike Gibson studied theology in college, worked in drug rehabilitation and supervised a home for girls before founding Operation Lookout.

With a staff of nine, Operation Lookout is supported solely by private donations. It is a founding member of the Association for Missing &amp Exploited Children’s Organization, and has been lauded by the governor’s office for exemplary victim services.

"A lot of families we deal with don’t have a lot of funds. Operation Lookout has been very good to help these people," said Griffin, the King County detective.

"They are honest people who have made a sacrifice to help kids," Malkow added.

As dozens of cases await attention, Operation Lookout has heard no word of Kubesh in Chicago.

"We don’t usually hear back," Gibson said with a trace of sadness. "The time comes that we have to back out. We see an issue resolved, and we really need to be out of there."

For more information, visit the organization’s Web site, www.operationlookout.org.

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