Years later, still waiting for a child to return

Annette Stanley may no longer set a place at the dinner table for her daughter, Toya Hill, something she did for about a year after the 8-year-old disappeared while going to buy candy at a store near their East Baltimore home.

It has been, after all, almost 29 years since the quiet, bespectacled little girl vanished, a span of time in which Stanley has married, moved and seen Toya's three siblings grow up and give her 15 grandchildren. But with or without an actual place setting, her lost daughter remains a constant, if elusive, presence.

"I will always believe she is alive," Stanley said. "But some part of me says, 'She's that old, how come she hasn't tried to find you?' "

It is among the countless unanswerable questions that haunt parents of children who have gone missing for months, years or, as with Toya, even decades. Not knowing if — or even when — you will see your child again surely ranks high among the worst parental nightmares, nearly unimaginable to anyone who hasn't actually experienced it.

So when Stanley heard the news of Phylicia Barnes, who disappeared while visiting her sister in Baltimore more than a month ago and is still missing, she said a prayer for the 17-year-old girl's parents.

"Don't give up the search," she advises Phylicia's parents. "Put up fliers, have neighbors help, keep talking to the Lord."

As much media attention as such disappearances can attract, they are fairly rare: A Department of Justice report estimated that of the nearly 800,000 children reported missing in a year that it studied, only about 115 were abducted by strangers — compared to, for example, the many more who ran away on their own or were taken by a family member in a custody dispute.

Stanley, 58, now lives in Edgewood, where she runs a home day care service. But on March 24, 1982, when Toya was last seen, she was a single mother of four living in the Perkins Homes complex just south of Pratt Street.

Toya, a third-grader, had come home from City Springs Elementary School and was playing with friends in a courtyard when she decided to go to a store two blocks away. There, she was seen talking to two men, one of whom was her mother's ex-boyfriend.

When she failed to come home by early evening, Stanley called police. They canvassed the neighborhood and interviewed the two men and, ultimately, about 150 other people, and yet Toya has never been found.

"Really, I'm still at the same place I was at before," Stanley said. "That's the problem: You don't have any answers."

What kept her going was her other kids. "I had to keep living and surviving for them," she said. "I had to look out for their well-being."

Stanley only stopped setting a place for Toya at the dinner table when she realized how sad it was for her son and two daughters to be reminded of their sister's absence. She used to find pictures of Toya that the kids had put under their pillows at night, and keeps her own mementos of her long-lost daughter close at hand.

"I took everything, all her things she had, little drawings she did," Stanley said, "and I keep them in a box in my closet."

News of other missing children naturally triggers memories of her own. Last month, the story of Carlina White, who was kidnapped as a child and, at 23, found her biological parents on her own hit Stanley particularly hard.

"My anger came out first — why couldn't that be my child coming home to me?" she said. "Then I was happy for her mother."

As the birthdays — August 24 — and other holidays went by, Toya's return seemed less and less likely. Stanley wavers between believing that Toya was alive out there, somewhere, and accepting that perhaps she is long dead. Either option, though, produces its own torment: To hope is to "build myself up," she says, for the disappointment of a reunion that never comes. To even consider that Toya is dead, though, seems like giving up on her child.

Parents of missing children can be buffeted by a broad range of emotions, including fear, depression, grief, isolation, anger and despair, according to the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

The office advises parents that they should not feel guilty for going back to work — or laughing at times. It notes in a guide: "One minute you will feel a surge of hope, the next, a depth of despair that will threaten your very sanity. Life will become an emotional roller coaster that won't really stop until you can hold your child in your arms again."

Stanley recalls the conflicting emotions she felt when, several years ago, Baltimore police found the body of a woman they thought was about the age Toya would be. They asked her for a DNA sample, but it turned out not to match that of the woman — a result that at least theoretically meant Toya could still be alive. Still, it was upsetting because it also meant her daughter's fate was as unknowable as ever.

Stanley suspected at the time that Toya had been taken by an angry ex-boyfriend — a man she would ultimately marry years later. When her daughter disappeared, Stanley was three days away from marrying another man — in fact, she was getting her wedding dress fitted at the time. Stanley went ahead with the wedding, saying she thought that would prompt her ex-boyfriend to realize that their relationship was over and he would return the girl to her.

"I kept calling back to his house, leaving messages on his phone," she said of learning that he had been seen talking to Toya at the store. "I said, 'Please give her back to me.' He returned the call a day later. He said he didn't have her."

Stanley said her later marriage to the man was motivated by her belief that he could bring Toya back. "That was the reason for the marriage — I thought maybe he would give her back to me," she said. "At the time, I would have done anything as a mother to get answers."

She left him after several months, with no more clues to her daughter's whereabouts. Through friends, she learned several years ago that the man had died.

Much has changed in awareness of missing children since Toya vanished.

She went missing eight months after Adam Walsh, the 6-year-old who disappeared from a Florida mall and was later found murdered. His case drew nationwide attention, and his father, John Walsh, became a well-known child and crime victim's activist as well as host of the TV show "America's Most Wanted." Through his and other activists' efforts, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children was founded in 1984, and it continues serving as a clearinghouse for missing children.

On its website, page after heartbreaking page of pictures shows thumbnail photos of the missing, frozen in time to when they were last seen, as well as some details about their disappearances. Joining Toya on the page of Maryland's missing are cases as old as that of 4-year-old George Barksdale, who vanished from outside a West Baltimore church in 1969, to those as recent as Barnes, the North Carolina honors student and track star who was staying at her sister's apartment in Northwest Baltimore when she disappeared Dec. 28.

Many of the children on the website are runaways, or are believed to have been taken by relatives, sometimes in custody disputes. Others are thought to be persons who have been found dead and have not been identified.

Robert L. Dean saw the range of cases in the more than 10 years in which he headed the Baltimore Police Department's missing-persons unit. In fact, when he looks back on that time, two cases stand as bookends.

"My very first case was Toya Hill, who was never found," Dean said. "The last case was the girl we found in a dumpster. While we were standing there waiting for homicide [detectives], they came to empty it. We were five minutes away from losing her forever."

That was Ebony Scott, a 9-year-old from New York who was visiting her sister and was found slain the day she was reported missing: Aug. 12, 1992.

In between, there were more typical cases, said Dean, who is 68 years old and retired after 25 years with the police force. He found runaways, helped people locate relatives with whom they'd lost contact, determined the identities of the dead.

The long-term missing stand out because they are so rare. He remembers Toya's case vividly, as well as one he inherited: 7-year-old Telethia Good. She disappeared from her aunt's house, where she was visiting while her mother was at a church event, on Sept. 10, 1979.

"There was always the feeling, have I done everything I can do?" Dean said of having to pass those cases on to his successors when he retired. "I don't compare what I did to a doctor, but a doctor would always like to cure a disease. And he can do all he can, and he still can't cure every disease."

Even now, something will trigger a memory of a still-open case: Dean saw an ad for the Greene Turtle bar recently, and it reminded him of a woman who had overdosed and, despite a distinctive turtle tattoo, he was never able to identify.

Other cases similarly haunt other parts of the state: Katherine and Sheila Lyon, 13 and 11 respectively, who went to Wheaton Plaza on March 25, 1975, to get pizza and have not been seen since. Or George "Junior" Burdynski, 10, who disappeared while riding his bike to a neighbor's house in Prince George's County on May 24, 1993.

The cases have had their fits and starts, promising leads that went nowhere, suspicions that either were unfounded or could never be proved.

For Annette Stanley, losing her daughter feels like a journey that has yet to end, one that has taken twists and turns — even through psychics, at one point. And even as she acknowledges that perhaps Toya is dead, Stanley also allows herself to imagine her now grown-up daughter one day walking through the door.

"Oh my God," she says. "That would be the happiest day of my life."