Newly elected South Bethany Town Council Member Sue Callaway hasn’t always lived at the beach full-time. For most of her adult life, she has been fighting for children, and she was part of the founding team of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
“My husband and I were both involved in working with delinquent and abused kids,” Callaway noted.
Then, in 1981, they met John and Reve Walsh. John Walsh is known to many Americans as the host of the television show “America’s Most Wanted,” but to the Callaways he was the grieving father of Adam, a 6-year-old boy from Southern Florida who was abducted and murdered in 1981.
“He came to Washington, D.C., because he was completely outraged at how the police investigated the whole case,” Callaway said of John Walsh. “It wasn’t the police per say, it was the laws that did not allow the police to do certain things.”
She also said that, at the time, police around the country did not have the jurisdictional power to search for missing children on a large scale. There was no national system in place to help search for and recover missing children, and according to the Center’s Web site, the recovery rate for abducted children was only 62 percent.
Thanks to the efforts of John Walsh, Callaway’s husband, Robbie, and others, the Missing Children’s Act was passed in 1982, which gave the Federal Bureau of Investigation the authority to search for a missing child.
“What began to happen was, as I became more involved in the missing children, we were receiving calls from parents that were missing kids that really had no place to go,” she said. “There was no hope.”
Callaway continued his work on additional legislation to protect children and she became involved in interacting with the families of missing kids.
“There was this whole group of people who were out there and struggling,” she said.
Callaway said the Justice Department was finally persuaded in 1984 that the matter of missing children was urgent enough to deserve an entire organization. President Ronald Reagan opened the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and also created a national hotline.
Walsh noted this week that the Callaways were vital in launching the Center. He described Sue Callaway as dedicated, with a tremendous work ethic and, most importantly, a great deal of compassion.
“Sue’s all about making a difference,” John Walsh said. “She is what everybody in America needs. She truly believes in making the world a better place.”
Since the Center opened, Callaway has been witness to an immense number of changes in the system – legislatively, technologically and culturally. She noted that new software enables remarkably accurate sketches to be created that depict abducted children as they would appear years later. Previously, that work was done by hand.
Callaway noted that milk cartons, mailed postcards and VHS cases at video stores were all means of showing pictures of missing children to the public, but those methods took several weeks to reach people. Now, a picture and description can be in a national database and on the Internet for the entire world to see in less than an hour.
Although the Internet can be an invaluable resource, Callaway said it is also becoming a bigger and bigger threat to children, with the presence of online predators and the prevalence of child pornography.
“I remember talking to this one guy from the FBI… ‘I think these computer things are going to get a little out of hand,’” Callaway recalled saying in the mid-1990s.
Callaway said the Center developed netsmartz.org, an online safety program, to help educate children and their parents about being safe on the Web.
“Some states have it in all their schools,” she said. “It’s a really neat safety program.”
The Center has also been involved in legislation, such as the creation of a cyber tip line, the national child sex offender registry, Amber Alert system – which Callaway said went in to effect in every state in 2006 – and FBI personnel who work undercover, looking online for sex offenders who are trying to entice children.
In the 1980s, when legislation protecting children was new, Callaway worked in schools, training teachers about mandatory reporting laws. Since 1998, she has also traveled the world, opening up field offices in other countries, to help them establish similar organizations.
Reporting laws have been a hot topic in Delaware recently, because of the Earl Bradley case, in which a Lewes pediatrician stands accused of sexually abusing hundreds of young patients.
“That’s a really big case. One of the biggest that’s ever happened,” Callaway said. “I think it’s a huge wakeup call that, even though you have laws, that people must report suspicions. There were a lot of mistakes made, and a lot of people should lose their jobs over it.”
She explained that, although laws may be in place, policies and procedures may not be in place to enforce those laws.
Callaway said cases like Bradley’s and that of the murder of an 11-year-old Salisbury, Md., girl, Sarah Foxwell, on Dec. 22, 2009 – allegedly by a registered sex offender – are very discouraging.
“Your radar just really needs to go up,” she said. “You don’t want to think evil is in people, but there is evil in this world.”
Callaway urged guardians to be vigilant in protecting their children. She said parents should always know exactly who is around their child and should follow their gut instincts and not discount uncomfortable feelings they may have about a person or situation.
She said one of the best ways to question kids about who they are with is to ask them open-ended questions. Even small children can say things that may be warning signs.
“We have definitely come a long way,” Callaway said. “But you know we have a whole new generation of parents that needs to be trained, and you can never let it go.”
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children receives funding from the U.S. Department of Justice and from private donors. Callaway said they reported a 96 percent recovery rate for missing children in 2006.
“It’s been a struggle, and there’s been a lot of dedicated people who have been with us from the very beginning and are still there,” Callaway said.
Robbie Callaway was a founding board member of the Center and still serves on its board today. The Callaways are now permanent residents of South Bethany, but still have an apartment in the Washington, D.C., area.