Alex Tresniowski
January 28, 2008 12:00 PM

Sometimes it happens when he’s whipping around on his dirtbike. Or when he’s rocking out to Guitar Hero III on his Xbox 360. This Christmas it happened when he opened presents marked To Shawn From Santa. “He looked at me like, ‘Mommmmmm!’ and I was like, ‘I know,'” says his mother, Pam Akers. “He got a big kick out of that.” Sometimes the four worst years of all their lives just melt away, as if they never happened. “Yes, Shawn is older now, but when we look at him, we still see that 11-year-old boy,” says his dad, Craig. “We missed out on that for all those years, so it’s really important for us to try and reclaim a little bit of it.”

It was a year ago this Jan. 12 that Shawn Hornbeck, now 16, returned to his family after police rescued him and another boy, Ben Ownby, 14, from their kidnapper and tormentor Michael Devlin, 42. In that year Shawn’s parents—still giddy sometimes at the miracle of his return—have worked hard to make his life seem as normal as possible, while at the same time addressing their own need to reconnect with, and protect, their son. It’s been a delicate, difficult balancing act, but so far the results have been heartening. Given the physical and mental abuse he suffered for four years, Shawn is “doing absolutely wonderful,” says Craig, 46, who works for a freight company with Pam. “He always has a smile on his face, and he’s always laughing about something.” When Shawn first came back, he kept his shoulders hunched and avoided eye contact. But now, says Craig, “he’s outgoing and bubbly.”

Shawn is not ready to speak publicly, and his parents are fiercely protective of his privacy. But they agreed to share details of their lives because they are grateful for the media’s attention during Shawn’s disappearance—and as a way to publicize the Shawn Hornbeck Foundation, which they started to help other families find missing children and handle their grief. “We could have just walked away from it all,” says Craig. “But we know how hard it was for us to have to figure all this out on our own.”

One unique challenge the Akerses face is that their son came back to them at just the age when most teens are starting to pull away from their parents. And so the questions all parents must answer are even harder for them: How much freedom should they give Shawn? Is he ready to start dating? What about driving? “It’s scary enough putting your 16-year-old in a car, but it’s 10 times scarier for us,” says Pam, 44. “You wish you could just put Shawn in a magic protective bubble and take care of him, but you know you can’t.”

Early on after his return, the Akerses took few, if any, chances. They never let Shawn leave their modest one-story home in Richwoods, Mo., without an adult, and they even monitored his sleep for signs of nightmares. “Pam would follow him around from room to room,” says Craig. Now Shawn—who was kidnapped while riding his bicycle near his rural home—is allowed to take his dirtbike out around the family’s five-acre property by himself, as long as someone else is home. But he is never left in the house alone, and he has only been allowed to spend an evening out with friends twice since he’s been back. Therapy has “helped Shawn understand how hard it is for us to let him go,” says Pam, who with Craig has seen her own therapist. “But he’s definitely more ready to cut the apron strings than we are. He keeps assuring us nothing’s going to happen, but I keep saying, ‘You don’t know that!'”

Shawn sees his therapist once a week and attends group sessions with his parents, when they feel it is needed. Early on “we saw some anger in the sessions,” says Pam, and even now there are days when “Shawn will get really quiet and withdrawn, just go into denial and pretend like it doesn’t exist,” says Craig. “Fortunately those periods don’t last very long.” Last fall the Akerses enrolled Shawn in a private school in St. Louis, after hiring a security company to assess safety issues (either Pam or Craig drive him the 1 1/2 hours each way every day). Now in the ninth grade, Shawn is thriving. With the help of a summer tutor, he quickly made up three grades and has a 3.9 GPA; he hopes to graduate on time in 2010. “There’s only a couple of kids there who know the whole story, so he really fits in,” says Pam. “It’s a place he can go to be a teenager, not a boy who was kidnapped.”

While Shawn has steadily shared details of his abduction and abuse with his therapist and with his older sister Jennifer, 21 (he is also close with his other sister Jacqueline, 22), “he’s not as ready to share them with us if he thinks it’s something that’ll make us sad,” says Craig. “The key is him knowing that there’s nothing he can’t talk to us about.” Fortunately Shawn will not have to relive his ordeal any further at a trial; in October Devlin pled guilty to dozens of charges and received multiple life sentences (see box).

Yet Shawn is constantly reminded of his situation whenever he is out in public. “There’s hardly any place he can go that somebody doesn’t recognize him and want to give him a hug,” says Pam. “He’s gotten to where it doesn’t bother him anymore.” Another reminder is the bodyguard, donated by an executive protection firm, who accompanies him on the few outings he is allowed. “Shawn thinks it’s pretty cool that he has his own security guy,” says Craig.

No guard, however, can protect Shawn from heartbreak, something his parents fear might happen were he to date a girl who was intrigued only by his fame. On top of suffering unspeakable abuse, Shawn “wasn’t taught social skills that kids learn when they are 11, 12, 13,” says Craig. “We’re concerned he’s not emotionally ready for a real relationship.” Yet the handsome teen—who walked back into his home at 5’10”, more than a foot taller than when he disappeared—has several female friends he regularly calls and texts. “He does think girls think he’s a hottie,” says Craig with a chuckle. But, adds his mom, “dating is out of the question.”

For how long, though? When will it be okay to let Shawn just be Shawn again? The Akerses know the moment is approaching when their son will push for something they can no longer reasonably deny him. “In July he’ll be 17, and we can’t keep him hidden away forever,” says Craig. “We know we don’t have much time left to keep him under our wing.”

They know, too, that whatever time they do have is precious. Their Christmas together was especially happy; Shawn got mostly motocross gear and “was blown away by his riding boots,” says Craig. On New Year’s Eve, Shawn and his family played Guitar Hero III into the night. “Sometimes it’s hard to know that this is real, that he’s not going anywhere,” says Pam. “Sometimes I’ll sit and wonder when the bomb is going to drop. But seeing Shawn smile and laugh and cut up like any normal 16-year-old, it’s just amazing.”

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