Arnold Miller Grieves for His Stolen Son and Fights for Laws That Might Bring Him Back

updated 03/19/1979 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/19/1979 AT 01:00 AM EST

The last time Arnold Miller saw Mason was on a June evening. He was returning the boy to his mother, Toby, from whom Miller was separated, after he and his son had spent the weekend together. "Daddy," he remembers Mason asking, "why can't we see each other every week instead of every other weekend?" Without answering, Miller handed Toby her support payment, kissed the cheerful 4-year-old goodnight and drove away. When he returned two weeks later, the boy and his mother were gone. "I had no idea they had left for good," he says. "The apartment was full of furniture and clothes and Mason's toys. The car was in the driveway. Her employers said she was on vacation." That was nearly five years ago.

In many respects, Miller's story is disturbingly typical. More than 25,000 parents each year lose their children to an estranged spouse—and to a system of law that refuses to classify such abductions as criminal. Miller knew the authorities would be of little help—his wife had taken Mason away before, once for seven months—but his sense of helplessness was nearly unbearable. "When the judge told me, 'You find your wife, and we'll be glad to issue a contempt-of-court citation,' I just began to cry," he recalls. "And I cried for about three or four nights a week. I was obsessed with the idea that we must find Mason."

But after spending two years and $15,000 on tracking down false leads as well as on detective fees, he reluctantly gave up the search. "I realized then that I couldn't just run in and change Mason's life around," he says. "He'd had to adjust, and I couldn't just disrupt his life again. I simmered down. I still keep my ears open and continue to look, but not with the same intensity."

Miller's self-restraint was born of disillusionment as well as compassion. Barely 10 percent of children abducted by one parent are ever reunited with the other. But far from accepting the grim statistics, Miller, 35, is working to change them. In early 1975 he founded Children's Rights, Inc. (CRI), a clearinghouse for information about cases like his own. "We felt that even though people couldn't find their kids, they should know that someone else understands the problem," he explains. "Victimized parents can waste energy, emotion and money, and even then they will get nowhere. We can tell them what they can and what they cannot expect from the law."

Realistically, he says, parents should expect almost nothing. "Nationwide, police view it as a domestic situation," he says, "and the average age for children who are snatched is 3 to 7—old enough to be out of diapers but too young to make a long-distance call." Since he started CRI with Rae Gummel,30, his wife since 1976 (after he had divorced Toby in absentia), Miller has been in touch with thousands of parents and has opened chapters in 30 states. But the organization is still headquartered in his small Washington, D.C. home and is funded by contributions alone. "Whenever we get down to $40 in the kitty, I throw in some of my own money," says Miller, a computer systems analyst with the U.S. Postal Service.

Spurred partly by information that Miller and his group have provided, 28 states have now passed the Uniform Child Custody Act, which makes custody agreements in one state enforceable in others that subscribe to the law. In addition, bills are now pending in the U.S. House and Senate that would make child snatching a federal crime. Until that happens, says Miller, the file on successful parent-child reunions will remain pitifully thin.

"But parents never abandon the search," he adds. "We had one mother who had been looking for her daughter for 20 years. The father had raised the girl in the Caribbean, and she thought her mother was dead. When they finally met it was tremendously emotional." Still, such resolutions can be temporary. "Even when children are returned, we don't close the case," he says. "The children are often kidnapped again. There is no protection. It's a continuing story."

As for Miller's own, he has learned that Toby also divorced him in 1975 in Decatur, Ga. and he tries to remain stoic about the fate of Mason, now 9. "I believe Toby is a decent mother," he says, "but I wonder how he is being raised, what he's being taught. Sometimes I fear Toby may have remarried and that her new husband has adopted Mason," he continues. "But I think there is going to be a time—soon—when I will find Mason and then the whole thing will be thrown in my lap. He'll be confused, and it will take a lot of work, a lot of family therapy, a lot of questions."

Wondering aloud what he will say to Mason after so many years, he remembers a trip they took together to Disney World. There he took snapshots of Mason in front of a mechanical mouse that somehow escaped the father's attention. When the first batch of pictures were developed, the mouse was nowhere to be seen. "Mason kept asking me where the mouse was," Miller recalls, "and I kept telling him, There wasn't any mouse, Mason.' " Only after the boy disappeared did the rest of the pictures come back. "I'd just like to show them to him," says Miller slowly. "After four and a half years all I want to say is, 'You were right, Mason, there was a mouse.' " The memory shatters his precarious poise, and Arnold Miller begins to cry.

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