There's an empty place at Patricia Stevenson's table this holiday -- a painful reminder of the four years that have passed since her 23-year-old daughter, Bernadette M. Caruso, disappeared after leaving a mall.
Not a day goes by that Mrs. Stevenson does not think of Ms. Caruso, the youngest of her seven children. Even with the hectic pace of the season, a Christmas tree draped with ornaments belonging to the missing woman stands in the midst of a relative's home.
"You just don't prepare yourself to have a child missing. It's the last thing on your mind," said Mrs. Stevenson, whose despair for her adult daughter is no different from that of any parent grieving for a lost child.
In hopes of helping others cope with similar heartache, particularly during the holiday season, Mrs. Stevenson and more than a dozen other parents formed a support group, the Missing and Exploited Children Association, based in the Stevenson home in Dundalk.
Mrs. Stevenson's participation in the group is "like a two-edged sword," she said. "It's another constant reminder that Bernadette is missing, but it's also a way of dealing with my feelings by being there for somebody else."
Manned by dedicated volunteers, the association provides a local clearinghouse for information on sexual abuse and missing persons of all ages. Missing children and adults frequently become victims of violence, Mrs. Stevenson said.
In addition, the group offers a 24-hour hot line operated from the home of Luellen Griffin. Her 17-year-old son Jamie had been missing eight years before his body was discovered April 2 in a shallow grave at Patapsco State Park.
Anne Lane Vosough, a Baltimore County music teacher, established the organization in 1986 as a prayer group in response to the increasing number of missing children whose pictures appeared on milk cartons.
About 11,900 children were reported missing last year, according to the state police. They had no statistics available on the number of missing adults, because in a majority of cases no crime has been committed when an adult disappears.
Baltimore County police, however, said they investigated more than 500 reports of missing adults last year. Many have just walked away from the lives they led, but others have disappeared -- unaccounted for under suspicious circumstances, police said.
During the Christmas season, the association's hot line buzzes with calls from people searching for loved ones. Mrs. Stevenson said that for many, it's just a matter of losing touch with a family member, but for others the loss is deeper.
For relatives of missing persons, the association is a refuge from the bureaucratic red tape, from the inability of police to investigate each case aggressively, and from public apathy they may encounter in the search for a loved one.
At times, Mrs. Stevenson said, "you begin to realize that you are more interested than anybody else in finding your child, and it's a heck of a lot work."
Mrs. Stevenson advises families searching for loved ones to report the incident to authorities as soon as possible, to conduct searches on their own, to flood the community with posters and to enlist the aid of friends and relatives to help in the search.
"These families are in such pain. A parent feels because of what they did or did not do. Like I, sometimes, feel that if maybe I did just one more thing to help protect Bernadette," she would not be missing, Mrs. Stevenson said.
She remembers feeling that something had gone awry when Ms. Caruso's estranged husband called on Sept. 27, 1986, to say that the young woman had not been at home in Dundalk when he tried to return the couple's daughter.
"There's just no way she would have taken off without her daughter. That child was her whole life," Mrs. Stevenson said.
The youngster now lives with her father.
Mrs. Stevenson learned from Ms. Caruso's co-workers at Shaw's jewelry store in Eastpoint Mall that the young woman had made plans to go out with them that night and that she had gone home to change her clothes.
However, police determined that Ms. Caruso, who was 23 at the time she disappeared, never returned home. Her car was never found. Police confirm that the young woman's disappearance is suspicious, but the trail of evidence has grown cold.
The Stevenson family continues to offer a $6,000 reward for information leading to Ms. Caruso's whereabouts.
Meanwhile, time has worn thin Mrs. Stevenson's hope for her daughter's survival. But without a body to mourn, she said, "there's no conclusion. It's like she disappeared off the face of the Earth."
Numbers to call
The Missing and Exploited Children Association's support group can be reached at 282-0437. Its 24-hour hot line number is 667-0718 in Cockeysville.