Children of divorce often suffer confusion, anger and intense psychological pain. Some of them—experts say as many as 100,000 a year in this country—are subjected to even crueler treatment. These are victims of child stealing, forcibly taken from the parent who has legal custody by the other parent, usually the father. Such children often must live on the run, taking false names to fool the police. “It’s a subtle form of child abuse,” says Michael Agopian, a California criminologist. “The children become emotional Ping-Pong balls.”
This winter Congress passed a law that directs federal agencies to assist state and local authorities in tracking down “stolen” children. The law, however, does not classify child snatching as a federal crime, although the FBI is now obliged to intervene if so directed by the local U.S. Attorney’s office. Sue Ellen Jares of PEOPLE looks at two parents who know the sad phenomenon firsthand, from opposite viewpoints—a mother who spent years searching for her missing children, and a father whose fear of losing his daughter led him to abduct her.
Susan Downer went to Los Angeles airport to pick up her three young children in August 1976. They were due back from a summer visit with their father, New York optometrist Seth Gerchberg. The children were not on the plane. Ten days later Downer received a letter from Gerchberg, announcing that he had stolen them. “I have taken the drastic step of breaking contact,” he wrote. “I will keep you informed of the children’s beautiful growth.” He did not do so. Susan and her second husband, Rick Downer, spent $300,000, gave up their house and quit their jobs during their four-year search for the children. They fiercely resented the FBI’s unwillingness to get involved. Susan once snapped: “Maybe I should tell them I’ve had three cars stolen and their names are Joslyn, Heather and Terry.”
Joslyn, 15, Heather, 10, and Terry, 8, were finally reunited with their mother last June. The story of their return is one of heartbreak—and incredible luck. In October 1977 the Downers found out from an American tourist that Gerchberg, his new wife and the children were living in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where Seth made contact lenses for a living. The tourist recognized the family from a magazine article about the missing children. With the support of California congressmen, the Downers tried to extradite Gerchberg but became enmeshed in frustrating and expensive legal red tape. Rick quit his job as a writer and producer of technical films to help Susan start an information clearinghouse called Parents against Child Stealing. The Downers were soon forced to move out of their home in Pacific Palisades, the elegant L.A. suburb where the Reagans lived. “Halfway through the four years, we almost separated,” Rick admits. “We were on food stamps and living in a one-room apartment with a new baby [their son, Ricky, now 4]. But I loved Susan, and I wasn’t going to abandon her in the middle of this.”
Gerchberg was finally arrested last June in a routine customs check as he crossed into North Dakota from Canada, where he had taken an optometry licensing exam. After police discovered he was living in Harrisburg, Pa., Susan flew there and brought the children back to her home in Southern California. But her problems are far from over. Joslyn has chosen to return at least temporarily to her father. Terry did not even remember his mother when they were reunited—and he still has trouble concentrating. The middle child, Heather, seems happiest to be back. Susan has an explanation for the behavior of each child. “Terry was 4 when he was taken,” she says. “I could not assume he would remember anything. Joslyn has psychological problems. Heather could not be conned.” Both Heather and Terry are seeing a psychiatrist.
The younger children have not visited Gerchberg since he was arrested. He lives in Harrisburg and faces up to four years in prison, a fine or both on California charges of child abduction and felony violation of the Custody Act. He will not comment directly on the case. Susan, still bitter and unforgiving, fears that he will try to avoid prison by convincing the court that Joslyn needs him. “If you commit a crime, damn it, you should do the time,” says Susan. “These children are going to suffer tremendously the rest of their lives. We’re going to end up paying for it.”
In 1970 Joseph Sorokin was a desperate man. For more than three months, he claims, his ex-wife, Mary Ann, had kept their 4-year-old daughter, Linda (not her real name), hidden from him. Then, he says, he learned that Mary Ann was petitioning the court to allow her to move with the girl from Los Angeles to London. “I realized if my daughter went to England, I’d never see her again,” he says. “It really jolted me. Through my lawyer, I arranged for one more visitation—and when she was handed to me, I headed for the airport.”
Sorokin says he flew to Atlanta and settled there. A television sound editor with an Emmy nomination for Mission: Impossible, he had to begin a new career. He says he first found work as an unskilled laborer but eventually became a sales executive. There were reports that Sorokin lived in an upper-middle-class section of Atlanta during the time he claims he was making $2 an hour as a railroad worker. In 1977 he graduated from the Woodrow Wilson College of Law in Atlanta but has never practiced. As soon as Linda was old enough to understand, Sorokin says, he told her, “Your mother was planning to take you to London and you know how much Daddy loves you.”
Today Linda supports her father’s action. “I don’t feel I’ve been hiding all my life. I wasn’t scared,” she says. “I’ve had a normal life.” But she has tried and failed to establish a rapport with her mother. “I’d love to have a relationship with her,” Linda insists, “but she won’t let it happen. She argues and screams and makes me feel nervous.” Court records in L.A. show that Sorokin’s visitation rights were suspended in 1970 because of testimony that he had shot at Mary Ann, beaten her and threatened to mutilate her. He denies these charges, however, and claims that he has been a model father. “I gave Linda every benefit and advantage—ballet and piano lessons, horseback riding and swimming lessons,” he says. Sorokin returned to L.A. in 1980, when Linda reached the age of 14. “I wanted to remove the legal problems confronting me,” he says, “and have Linda assume her real first name and go to a good college.”
Last month Sorokin pleaded nolo contendere to the charge of concealing a child, and a hearing will be held in a few weeks. Linda has remained with her father by choice—with her mother’s permission pending court decision—and is attending a public high school. It isn’t clear how Linda’s underground life affected her, if at all. “At first, every time I’d hear a car pull up or a door slam, my heart would sink that someone had grabbed her,” Sorokin recalls. “But I was lucky. It never happened.” Whether Linda was equally lucky is another question.