Despite a seven-year kidnaping ordeal that ended five years ago, Steven Stayner is described by his parents as a "fairly normal" teen-ager.
Delbert and Kay Stayner admit that Steven, 19, has his troubles. He ran up $1,100 in traffic fines, lost his driver's license and is working off his penalties raking leaves and splitting wood for Merced County.
Steven's kidnaper, Kenneth Parnell, 53, is scheduled to be paroled from state prison April 9 after serving five years and one month behind bars--less time than the boy was away from his family.
When Steven was whisked from a city street Dec. 4, 1972, while walking home from school, his abductor--a drifter and ex-convict--told the 7-year-old boy that his parents didn't want him because they couldn't afford him, the Stayners learned later.
A social worker who is recognized as an authority on young victims compared the boy's relationship with Parnell to that of a prisoner of war--a dependent brainwashing victim who was forced by circumstance to live a new life.
"If you believe you have no alternative, you just learn to live with it," said Lucy Berliner of the sexual assault center at Harbor View Medical Center in Seattle. "Your sense of right and wrong, your sense of reality gets distorted, essentially for the purposes of survival."
Steven, the middle child of five, returned to his family at 14 and attended high school for four years. Now he takes two welding courses at Merced College and lives at home in a middle-class subdivision in this city in the San Joaquin Valley.
Although he has refused interviews for the last year, his parents agreed to talk to a reporter.
"He never got in one full semester that was uninterrupted," said Kay Stayner, recalling two trials, book offers and unrealized plans for a movie when Steven was in high school.
"I am not really surprised that he didn't make it through," Kay Stayner said of her son, who earned a graduation-equivalent diploma. Steven, she said, had to confront "some of the kids making comments about him" as a result of publicity about his kidnaping ordeal.
"This kid missed out on the chance to feel like other kids," Berliner said. Sexual abuse "separates them from other people to a substantial degree for a long time, if not permanently. There's always a part of you that feels you're different from other people."
The Stayners' aspirations for their son are simple, but not easy. Kay Stayner, who runs a day-care center at home, said she hopes "he lives a happy life." Delbert Stayner, a maintenance mechanic for 24 years, said he wants to "get him a good job."
"You can't expect to go through life unless you work for it. I think he's starting to learn that," his father said. "I don't want him to be a welder all his life, but it's a start."
Steven, who was renamed Dennis Parnell during his odyssey, had "lots of freedom" with his kidnaper as they roamed across Northern California--smoking cigarettes at 10, drinking whiskey in the sixth grade and discovering marijuana, his parents said.
Maintaining her characteristic calm, Kay Stayner admitted that she was furious about the sexual abuse inflicted on her son by Parnell, whose first imprisonment--at 19--was for molesting an 8-year-old boy.
"You can't take it back," she said quietly. "Steve will just have to learn to live with it and build his own life without that getting in his way. He's making headway."
Merced County Dist. Atty. Pat Hallford, who prosecuted the Stayner kidnaping, originally wanted Parnell charged with sex crimes, but Parnell was tried only for the abductions of Stayner and Timmy White, 5.
On March 1, 1980, Steven took Timmy, whom Parnell had kidnaped two weeks earlier, to the police station in Ukiah, 200 miles north of Merced, to save Timmy from his own fate. Parnell was preparing to move to Arkansas with both boys, the Stayners said.
Parnell, according to Hallford, is "still a danger." He said, "Sometimes you cure a thief by chopping off his hands, but people who have a sexual orientation usually don't switch around."
The terms of Parnell's parole have not been disclosed.
The Stayner case, believed to be the longest in which a kidnap victim finally returned home, has affected more than just his family.
A change in state law triggered by the Stayner case imposes full consecutive terms for child kidnapings in similar cases. Parnell received seven years for the White kidnaping, 20 months for Stayner's abduction and time off for good behavior and prison work.
No Public Attention
The abductions happened before public attention focused on the issues of missing children and child abuse. It's an awakening the Stayners welcome.
"I just hope the general awareness of it goes on forever," Kay Stayner said, emphasizing the parental role in teaching children to protect themselves from kidnaping.
The Stayners also believe that law enforcement authorities have changed their previous conceptions of missing children. Delbert Stayner recalled arguments he had with detectives who told him "the police theory" that a child missing for three months was dead.
Steven Stayner's return rebutted that theory.