Every time Noreen Gosch hears about another missing child, she’s plunged back into the pit of anxiety, of worry, of despair. It’s a place she can’t describe. It’s a place she can’t fully escape.
“The anxiety of not knowing where your child is is enough to kill a parent,” said Gosch, whose 12-year-old son, Johnny Gosch, disappeared on Sept. 5, 1982, while working his paper route for the Des Moines Register in West Des Moines.
“It’s the most stressful thing a person can go through,” Gosch said. “When there are no answers, your mind goes in a million directions.”
Tuesday, on day five of a search for a pair of Evansdale cousins – Elizabeth Collins, 8, and Lyric Cook-Morrissey, 10, who were last seen riding their bicycles Friday afternoon — Gosch said she feels the family’s pain and fears, and she’s reached out to offer her support.
“I’m praying for their strength and that they receive an answer soon,” Gosch said. “I’m praying that they don’t have to wait 10 years to get their first break in the case.”
The waiting, as Gosch testifies, is excruciating.
“It is a very unfortunate and sad and tense time,” she said. “I know all too well what it’s like.”
Gosch’s son was abducted almost 30 years ago, but she didn’t start putting pieces together in his case until 1989, when a man gave his attorney information indicating he had participated in the abduction of a Des Moines paperboy.
In 1997, Gosch said her son – then 27 – appeared outside her door, accompanied by another man. They talked for more than an hour before leaving and vanishing again. Gosch said years later, she began receiving pictures of her son from a self-described pedophile, and she believes her son was taken by child pornographers and forced into some type of sexual slavery.
Today, she’s still searching for her son’s abductors, and as recently as Tuesday, Gosch said she received an emailed list of pedophile names that could have ties to her son’s abduction.
In the early years that passed without any news, Gosch committed herself to finding her son and to changing the way authorities search for missing children. She created the Johnny Gosch Foundation a month after her son’s disappearance and founded a program called “In Defense of Children.”
Despite her quick report to police in her son’s case, Gosch said, the department’s policy prevented it from classifying her son as a missing person until after he had been gone 72 hours. And, she said, the Federal Bureau of Investigation didn’t get involved at all after her initial report.
In 1984, thanks to Gosch’s advocacy efforts, Iowa legislators passed the Johnny Gosch Bill, requiring immediate involvement of police when a child goes missing. At least eight states have passed similar bills since. Johnny Gosch also was one of the first missing children pictured on a milk carton.
Gosch said she hopes the changes in how law enforcement officers respond to missing children reports will give the missing Evansdale girls a better shot at coming home safely.
“These little girls disappeared on Friday, and the FBI took the case on Saturday – that never would have happened in Johnny’s case,” she said. “I hope these girls have a better chance than Johnny had. I really hope they have some peace of mind soon.”
Gosch described the early moments of grappling with the what-ifs of having a missing child as “chaos.” As the search widened for her son, Gosch said, it was difficult for her to grasp the concept that someone might have taken her child out of the state.
She said her mind made the transition from hoping and searching for her son to grieving and hunting for his kidnappers after she had followed every tip and chased down every possibility.
“When we had exhausted all our efforts to search for him, then I shifted into a mode of working on who did it,” she said. “Who committed this crime? I’ve always had hope this case would be resolved.”
But, she said, missing children cases can extend into lengthy ground searches and even longer investigations.
“That’s the thing, everything moves slowly with these cases, none of it moves rapidly,” she said. “It’s a long waiting game.”