Long before Caylee Marie Anthony, Jennifer Kesse and Jessica Lunsford became household names in Central Florida, 20-year-old Tiffany Sessions walked out of her apartment near the University of Florida and never returned.
Like the more recent disappearances, Sessions' case made national headlines. Hundreds of people volunteered to help find her.
Eventually, Sessions' relatives became advocates for missing persons. Her mother even directed a nonprofit dedicated to the issue.
But earlier this year — a month after the 20th anniversary of Sessions' disappearance — that organization folded because of a lack of money.
"It's heartbreaking I couldn't keep the charity alive," Hilary Sessions said. "It's disheartening that we are not going to be able to help all of these families who really depended upon us."
Sessions' group — Child Protection Education of America — isn't the only such Florida organization to disband.
The Central Florida-based Missing Children Center also closed recently.
If these long-standing groups can't survive, what's to come of the other missing-persons organizations in Florida, where nearly 47,000 children were reported missing last year?
Police work with some groupsWhen Tiffany Sessions disappeared, only one Florida group, now defunct, would take on her case because she wasn't a child. Even the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children — co-founded several years earlier by John Walsh, whose 6-year-old son, Adam, was abducted from a South Florida mall — wouldn't help.
Today, a year after Caylee Anthony was reported missing, missing-persons organizations large and small serve in a variety of ways. Some distribute fliers, launch ground searches or lend a listening ear. Others focus on prevention efforts.
Caylee's case brought Texas EquuSearch and Kid Finders Network to Orlando. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement works closely with A Child is Missing, a South Florida-based group whose key function is to deliver phone alerts about missing people.
Orlando-based Child Watch of North America helped organize a search for Kesse, who was 24 when she was abducted from her Orlando condo Jan. 24, 2006.
Orlando police Sgt. Barbara Jones said that was the first time OPD worked with Child Watch. She commended the group for its work on that case.
Law-enforcement officials say the services some missing-persons organizations provide are beneficial because exposure is key.
But investigators cautioned that not all missing-children's organizations are created equal.
Some are legit and provide valuable assistance to families and law-enforcement. Other groups or people, however, may have intentions other than simply finding a missing person.
It's unclear exactly how many organizations exist in Florida that are devoted to missing-person's issues.
The Association of Missing and Exploited Childrens Organizations — made up of nonprofits in the United States and Canada that provide services to families with missing and exploited children — has strict requirements before allowing membership. Among them is being in continuous operation for the previous two years.
Only two Florida nonprofits are AMECO members: A Child is Missing and the Jimmy Ryce Center for Victims of Predatory Abduction.
Fundraising proves difficultTimes are tough for many nonprofits of all missions, said Maria-Elena Augustin, programs coordinator for the Center for Public and Nonprofit Management at UCF.
To thrive during tough times, nonprofits should make sure their services are not only focused, but vital.
"Not just [a mission] that you believe in, but [one] your community believes in," Augustin said.
And that can be difficult for missing-children's organizations.
"The missing-children's issue is not a very jazzy issue," said Sessions, whose group worked on more than 450 cases. "People only come to an organization like this when they have a missing child."
A variety of challenges make it difficult for these groups to thrive. Fundraising is hard because the subject is negative, Sessions said.
"It's a lot easier to fund-raise for a pet that's been abused by an owner ... because you feel sorry for that pet. But you forget these are our children, and we need to take care of them," she said.
Current cases also influence public sentiment. Sessions said Casey Anthony's indictment on a first-degree-murder charge in the death of her toddler daughter doesn't translate well for missing-persons groups.
There are other more basic challenges.
Founding members of some groups, thrust forward by emotion and often well-intended, don't have the business acumen necessary to run a nonprofit, said Sherry Friedlander, executive director of A Child is Missing.
"They'll set up a foundation ..., and the money is generally wasted," she said.
Anthony case made impactSherri and Dennis Milstead, founders of Kid Finders Network, learned it first-hand. After the Milsteads volunteered in Caylee's case and featured her photo on their mobile billboard, the couple received harsh criticism.
"We took such a beating from the case in Orlando, it really put a hurting on us," Sherri Milstead said. "We're still being trashed over it."
Today the Milsteads' billboards are parked. Kid Finders, she said, doesn't have any money.
What should they do?B.J. Jimenez, whose nephew Zachary Bernhardt disappeared from his Clearwater home nearly nine years ago, said organizations like hers — the A-Z Missing Children's Outreach Center — exist because needs are not being met.
Several months after Caylee was reported missing, her family organized a foundation in her name.
Caylee's grandparents, George and Cindy Anthony, said they launched their nonprofit to help families understand their rights and provide them with information on the resources available to them.
"We basically had to figure out on our own what to do," the Anthonys said via an e-mailed statement. "There is so much going on that they do not know what to do or who to trust. We had no idea what community resources were available to us, or what our rights were."
The Anthonys' goal is to help families get emotional, financial and spiritual help.
Jimenez said the other reason people launch missing-children's organizations is for the simple fact no one wants his or her child to be forgotten.
Zachary, she said, would no longer be the 8-year-old depicted in original fliers but a 17-year-old youth. She wonders who has seen his age-progressed photo. She wonders who will look for Zachary now.
"If his picture's not out there, how's anybody going to know? ... It doesn't go away with us. We need this. The families and our children, we need this."
Amy L. Edwards can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5735.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun