It's almost impossible to say which one is worse: knowing that a child has been kidnapped and killed, or knowing only that they've disappeared and could be anywhere, undergoing any sort of terror, and never getting any answers about what happened. While having that bit of hope that their child is alive somewhere could give a parent a reason to keep on going, the lack of closure and the constant wondering could very well drive one mad.
Sadly, there are so many parents who are in that exact situation. They maintain hope that the kids who vanished years or even decades ago might still one day walk through their front door. We often hear that if a missing child is not found within the first 48 hours, they may never be seen again.
But with cases like that of Elizabeth Smart (returned home after 9 months) or Jaycee Dugard (returned home after 18 years), we know that happy endings aren't impossible and there is good reason to stay optimistic. It may be a one in a million chance, but a chance is still a chance.
Here are 17 cases of kids whose families are still waiting for answers of one kind or another after all these years.
17 The Boy On The Milk Carton
Six-year-old Etan Patz was walking to the bus stop to go to school when he vanished without a trace one day in 1979. It was the first time his parents had ever let him take the walk by himself. Despite a massive search effort, which included putting his face on a milk carton as a missing child for the first time ever, he's never been found. Though Etan disappeared almost 40 years ago, it took until earlier this year for a killer to be brought to justice. After two trials, the first of which ended with a hung jury, a man named Pedro Hernandez was convicted in Etan’s kidnapping and murder. He was apparently a friend of the boy’s babysitter. Hernandez was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
16 Were The Adoptive Parents Involved?
It's been 10 years since upstate New York boy Jaliek Rainwalker went missing. The 12-year-old was the adopted son of Stephen Kerr and Jocelyn McDonald, and police have said neither has cooperated with the investigation. Jaliek was last seen sleeping over at a relative's home with Kerr, who said that when he woke up in the morning the boy had vanished. Kerr raised suspicion, however, when he refused to take a lie detector test. He and his wife had apparently been looking into reversing the adoption a short time before Jaliek's disappearance, saying he'd become too hard to handle and a threat to their other children. Jailek's maternal adopted grandmother claimed to have witnessed Kerr being abusive to the boy. Police continue to actively investigate the case and have said they consider it a homicide.
15 Where Did The Bodies Go?
Christmas should have been a time of joy for the Sodder family of West Virginia, but it turned into a tragic mystery. On early Christmas morning in 1945, a fire broke out at the Sodder home. The parents were able to escape along with four of the 9 children who lived at home, but the other five simply vanished. Their father ran back into the burning house several times to look for the missing kids, to no avail. When fire crews finally arrived several hours later, everyone assumed the children had been killed in the blaze. But there was one major problem— the bodies weren't there. 14-year-old Maurice, 12-year-old Martha, 9-year-old Louis, 8-year-old Jenny, and 5-year-old Betty seemed to have simply vanished. To this day, the case has never been solved.
14 Left Alone In A Hotel Room And Never Seen Again
Madeleine McCann was just 3-years-old when she vanished from a hotel room. Her family was on vacation in Portugal in 2007 when parents Kate and Gerry left Madeleine and her younger twin siblings asleep in their room while they out to dinner. They were less than 500 feet away, but somehow Madeleine vanished. The case became a global sensation, making headlines around the world for months and years afterward. But despite a massive investigation, Madeleine is still missing. There are tons of different theories about the case, including that the little girl may have been the victim of a burglary gone wrong or that she was taken by a child trafficking ring. Though there are still no answers, the case is still actively being investigated and police continue to follow up on new leads.
13 A Stranger Tried To Take His Place
Nicholas Barclay was 13-years-old when he disappeared in 1994, after leaving a game of basketball with his friends. Police believe he might have taken off of his own accord, as he had run away before— but he'd always come home. This time, however, was different. There were no major breaks in the case until three years later, when a man living in a shelter in Spain claimed that Nicholas had showed up there after escaping a child slave ring. Nicholas's sister flew there to see the boy, and took him back home. Their mother was overjoyed, but other family members were skeptical. The boy's eye and hair color were different, and he refused to submit to any testing to confirm his identify. Eventually, police would expose him as a fraud. The whereabouts of the real Nicholas are still unknown.
12 Snatched From Her Crib
4-month-old Sabrina Eisenberg's parents put her down to sleep in her crib one night in November 1997, and would never see her again. Mom Marlene Aisenberg told police that the baby was there at midnight, but gone by the time she checked on her just before 7 a.m. Marlene and her husband believe someone came into their home and kidnapped their baby, perhaps entering the home through an unlocked door. But the couple came under fire themselves, and were ensnared in the police investigation after their home was bugged. Prosecutors never charged them in Sabrina's disappearance, but the Aisenbergs were indicted on charges of lying to investigators and accused of profiting off of the tragedy. They were eventually cleared, but there hasn’t been much further movement in the case. The Aisenbergs hold out hope that their daughter is alive and being raised by her kidnapper.
11 Sold On The Black Market?
Shane Anthony Walker was snatched from a New York City park in 1989, when he was just a year old. His mother told police that two other children had approached her and asked to play with her boy. She sat nearby as they played, and a man came up and struck up a conversation with her. She became distracted by that man, and the next thing she knew Shane was gone. The two older children had disappeared as well, but they reappeared in the park a short time later. Shane has never been seen since. Authorities have looked into the possibility that Shane was taken by a black market baby selling ring, as there were a couple of other cases with extremely similar details, including another boy who was abducted from the very same park.
10 Strangers With Evil Intentions
One of the cases that's been looked at in connection with Shane Anthony Walker's disappearance is that of baby Andre Terrence Bryant. Back in 1989, Andre's mother met two women who took an interest in her kids and convinced her to go shopping with them. They paid for her purchases with a stolen credit card, and got her to agree to go shopping with them again. They also insisted that she bring 1-month-old Andre along. After that next trip, Andre's mother was never seen alive again— her body turned up the next day. Andre hasn't been seen since, either. He too is thought to be a possible victim of a child adoption ring. Like the other victims, he was a young African-American boy, and none of the cases have ever been solved.
9 He Made It To School, But Then What?
Investigators know that 7-year-old Kyron Horman was dropped off at school by his stepmom on the day he disappeared in 2010, but they don't know what happened next. The little boy apparently never made it to his homeroom class that morning, and by the end of the school day, a search was underway— one that would become the largest ever in Oregon’s history.
Though stepmom Terri Horman has said she had nothing to do with the boy’s disappearance, Kyron’s parents are among those who suspect she knows what really happened to their son. Mom Desiree Young and dad Kaine Horman said that Terri failed multiple lie-detector tests. While filing for divorce, Kaine also accused Terri of plotting to murder him. Kyron’s whereabouts remain unknown to this day.
8 A Disastrous Spring Break
In a mistake that may have cost her her life, Brittanee Drexel headed to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina for spring break in 2009 without her mother's permission. She would never see her again. She apparently told her friends she was leaving the resort they were staying at to visit someone at a different hotel, but she never showed up there. There would be no sign of Brittanee for the next 7 years, but in 2016, there was a break in the case. Police announced that they believe the teen was snatched by a gang of drug dealers who repeatedly assaulted her. They believe Brittanee was held captive for several days, possibly with the intention of being forced into 'night work'. But her disappearance immediately drew so much attention that the plan was scrapped, and police believe she was then killed. Her body, however, has still never been found.
7 Kidnapped Under His Mother's Nose
Back in March 1991, Michael Dunahee's mom made the fateful decision to take him along to the park while she played a game of touch football with friends. Four-year-old Michael was allowed to play at the playground right next to the football field, with strict instructions not to wander away or talk to strangers. His father was on his way to the park as well, but by the time he showed up, Michael was gone. A massive search got underway, and police early on began to believe that the little boy had been abducted. But now, more than 25 years after the disappearance, there are still no answers about what happened to Michael. His parents say they maintain that he's still alive somewhere, and that they'll never let his case be closed.
6 Left Alone At Home
Mark Himebaugh was 11-years-old when he disappeared back in 1980. There was a brushfire near his New Jersey home, and he begged his mother to let him watch the firefighters in action. She agreed, then popped out to run an errand that she thought would take just a few minutes. Instead, it took closer to an hour, and when she returned, Mark was nowhere to be found. Police began to search for the boy, but all the they ever found was one of his sneakers at a beach that was a few hundred feet away from their home.
A few years later, a man came forward who claimed that another man, Thomas Butcavage, Jr., had shown him a clip of Butcavage physically assaulting Mark. Butcavage has long been a person of interest in the case, but he's never been charged. Mark has never been found.
5 Kidnapped From The Front Yard?
One April day in 1989, 22-month-old Aaron Mitchell Anderson's mom set him to play in their front yard. She stepped away for a few minutes while the toddler entertained himself outside, but by the time she returned the boy was gone. Police scoured the area for any sign of him, but he's never been seen again. They initially said that the boy had probably drowned, as the family's property was just a few feet away from the Snake River. But Aaron's family refused to accept that notion, and accused the police of failing to follow up on dozens of different leads that might've pointed to an abduction. Whether he fell into the river or was kidnapped, the family may never know for sure. His case remains opens and his parents continue to search.
4 Snatched Off Her Bike
The very first time 7-year-old Janice Pockett was allowed to go out by herself seems to have ended in disaster. Back in 1973, the little girl set out on her bike carrying an envelope to catch a butterfly she'd seen a few days earlier. A short time later, her mother went out to look for her and realized the girl was gone. Her bike was found, but nothing else. Police looked at a couple of different offenders who were living in the area at the time in connection with Janice's disappearance. One of them even confessed to killing her and burying her body, but still, she's never been found and the cases remains open. Several other little girls and young women disappeared in the area around the time, and those cases are also unsolved.
3 Mom's Story Doesn't Add Up
Sky Metalwala's mother claims that her little boy went missing after she left him alone in their car. She said she'd run out of gas while trying to drive him to the doctor, and had left him in his carseat while she walked to a gas station a few miles away. But police say the car was never on empty, and his mother never bought gas or even a gas can. Sky's mom had been in trouble before for leaving him and his sister alone for long periods of time, and because no one had seen Sky for several weeks before he was reported missing, it's impossible to say when he disappeared. Sky's father believes his mother may have given the boy to someone else because they were involved in a bitter divorce and custody dispute. She maintains he was kidnapped.
2 Missing From A Homeless Shelter
Relisha Rudd and her family were staying at a Washington, D.C. homeless shelter when she disappeared. Police know exactly who took the 8-year-old little girl, but they have never been able to figure out what happened to her. Relisha was last seen in the company of the shelter's janitor, Khalil Tatum. Her mother had apparently asked him to take care of the girl, wanting her to get away from the squalid atmosphere at the shelter. But when the girl failed to show up at school for several weeks, authorities finally got involved and began questioning Tatum. He apparently panicked, killed his wife, and went on the run. Police believe he then killed also Relisha, got rid of her body, and then killed himself. They've scoured different areas throughout D.C. to try and find the girl, but she's never turned up.
1 Did Mom Do It?
Aliayah Lunsford's mother may know more than she's letting on about her daughter's disappearance. The little girl was apparently sick in bed the last time her mother Lena claims to have seen her early on the morning of September 24, 2011. When Lena checked on the girl again later in the morning, she says she was gone. Instead of calling the police right away, she says she began to search herself. Witnesses would later come forward to say that they saw Lena strike the girl and badly injure her, but not get help. Lena was eventually charged with homicide by child abuse, though Aliayah's body has never been found. Her case officially remains open and she's listed as a missing child. Lena's trial is slated to get underway later this year, and she could face life in prison if convicted.
Sources: WNYT, FirstToKnow.com, News4sa.com, WFLA.com, The Charley Project, CBC, Washington Post, Websleuths, Journal Inquirer, FOX News Radio