An argument, and teen with autism vanishes

A mother tries to cope with the nightmare of her daughter's disappearance. It's a story that's all too common.

It began as a typical mother-daughter spat and turned into a catastrophe. It's a moment Janice Greenberg would give anything to take back.

Kimberly, 15, was on her cellphone when she was supposed to be getting ready for bed. Greenberg threatened to take it away. Kimberly rebelled. She threw the phone at her mother and locked herself in the bathroom. There was yelling, then shoving as Greenberg tried to block the door of their Mar Vista apartment.

"As soon as I turned my back, she left," Greenberg said.

That was 18 days ago — and none of Kimberly's friends or Greenberg's relatives has heard from the teenager since.

They have canvassed the neighborhood and posted fliers; created a Find Kimberly Greenberg Facebook page that has more than 1,000 likes; scoured social media, monitored her bank accounts and posted her story on national websites on missing children.

Yet there's been no sign of the petite teenager with the waist-length cascade of brown hair — a girl described by her friends as goofy and fun, and by her mother as so naive that she could be talked into entering a stranger's car.

"It's a nightmare," said Greenberg, an assistant principal who works at two L.A. Unified elementary schools.

Kimberly has autism and other cognitive problems that make her quick to anger and prone to impulsive behavior. Greenberg adopted her and her older sister, now 18, eight years ago from the foster care system.

"Everything is a fight for Kimberly, but she's been making progress," Greenberg said. "I want people to realize she's more than just 'that girl with autism who's missing.' She's an amazing child. She's my daughter. And I want her back home."

::

This isn't the first time Kimberly has disappeared.

When she gets angry or frustrated, she tends to storm off. But she would always return a few hours later after calming down at a friend's house or visiting an aunt who lives across from Mar Vista Park.

But this time, Greenberg said, she began worrying "five minutes after I heard the door slam." It was dark and windy, and Kimberly was so enraged the she left without her phone.

Greenberg called the LAPD. Officers searched the park, interviewed Kimberly's friends and broadcast her description to patrol cars citywide.

To Greenberg, that wasn't enough: The police were treating Kimberly like a headstrong teenage runaway instead of a vulnerable girl with the mind of an 8-year-old.

Her mother wanted helicopters, searchlights and tracking dogs.

When a missing-persons case involves a teenager, it can be hard to know initially how many resources to commit, Pacific Division Lt. Aaron Ponce said. "Is it a critical case, where you hold a press conference and bring in the bloodhounds? Or is this a teenager who's upset with Mom over the use of a cellphone and has a pattern of leaving and coming back in three or four hours?"

It took two days with no word from Kimberly for the pace to be stepped up. Then "we had a 24-hour-a-day, full court press through last weekend," Ponce said.

Officers canceled days off; detectives worked through weekends. FBI agents were enlisted to search Kimberly's home and scour her computer. "We've got everybody in the region looking for her," Ponce said. "We're chasing down every lead."

A few tips came in after Greenberg shared her story on TV news reports. Someone spotted a girl who looked like Kimberly at a cafe in Malibu. There were rumors of a reunion with members of her birth family; they were tracked down and interviewed.

"We didn't get anything significant," Ponce said. "Our leads just haven't panned out.

"Everybody's troubled by this," he said. And nobody's giving up."

::

I can't imagine how a mother copes with the mystery of a missing child.

Greenberg is trying to stay away from "should-a, could-a, would-a … but this is making me question everything I've done," she said.

Her worst fear is that her daughter has been abducted by a child predator. "I guess the best would be that she's hidden somewhere and she's safe.… It's horrific to even think about. I don't know how to explain it."

Pam Schmidt knows those feelings well.

Her 9-year-old daughter, Erica, disappeared while walking the dog in their small Ohio suburb. "We searched for hours," she said. "You're in denial, you think: This can't be happening. She's got to be somewhere. When the dog was found, then we panicked. We knew something was wrong."

That was 16 years ago. Erica hasn't come home. And her family hasn't stopped looking.

Now Schmidt volunteers with Team HOPE, a support group sponsored by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children that counsels people such as Greenberg.

The best thing "left behind" families can do is keep hope alive, Schmidt said. "You get wrapped up in the possibilities of what could have happened. But the next knock on the door or ring of the telephone could be information on your child."

And the best thing we can do is study those fliers of missing children that we pass as we walk the dog or enter the supermarket. One in six missing children are recovered because someone recognizes them and alerts authorities.

"Look hard at those faces," Schmidt said. "That is somebody's child, who's loved and missed at home."

Photos and information about Kimberly can be found on the LAPD's Pacific Division website at http://www.lapdonline.org/pacific_community_police_station/news_view/58352

sandy.banks@latimes.com

Twitter: @SandyBanksLAT

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
45°