More than 365 days.
Over five million minutes.
In excess of 31 million seconds.
That’s how long it’s been since Luba Shipman of Liverpool has seen her daughter.
Four-year-old Deonna was taken by her father, Jeffrey Shipman of North Syracuse, for his court-ordered visitation July 11, 2007. Neither has been seen since.
That’s when Luba Shipman became what experts call “the left-behind parent.”
Luba and her ex-husband, Jeffrey, shared joint custody of the little girl since their divorce three years ago. While Luba had physical custody, Jeffrey was allowed visitation. Both parents filed petitions seeking to modify the order in June of 2007 in Onondaga County Family Court.
At the family’s last court appearance, Jeffrey told Luba, “If I can’t have her, no one will.”
“I took it lightly,” she said shortly after her daughter’s disapperance. “I thought he was just angry.”
Deonna went to her father’s for her scheduled court-ordered visitation on Wednesday July 11. She was supposed to return by 5 p.m. Thursday July 12.
Instead, both Deonna and her father vanished.
Jeffrey Shipman’s car was found in the parking lot of the Rochester airport on July 19. Investigators have confirmed that he has taken Deonna and left the country.
“They’ve tracked him to London,” Luba Shipman said. “According to their passport activity [Jeffrey Shipman had insisted on taking his daughter’s passport, as Luba is originally from the Ukraine and he told the judge he feared she would leave the country with Deonna], their last exit was Heathrow Airport.”
Shipman said the FBI told her Jeffrey Shipman had bought two sets of tickets — one round-trip to Frankfurt, Germany and one to London. The tickets to Frankfurt were not used; investigators suspect Jeffrey Shipman bought them to throw them off his trail.
“But they have confirmed that he is definitely in England,” Luba Shipman said.
Family abduction: A common problem
According to David O’Brien, chief counsel for Missing Children’s Services at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) in Alexandria, VA, kidnapping is defined as any act that deprives a child’s legal guardian of the custody of that child. The mission of the NCMEC is to prevent just that from happening, as well as to provide services to victims of abduction or sexual exploitation, their families and the professionals who serve them. The NCMEC also serves as a clearinghouse for information on child abduction and sexual exploitation. Since its founding in 1984, the NCMEC had assisted law enforcement officials with over 138,000 missing child cases, resulting in the recovery of 121,500 missing children.
The NCMEC reports that some 797,500 children are reported missing each year, some 2,185 every day. Of those, 203,900 are family abductions, meaning the child is taken by a family member. In order to address those cases, the NCMEC has units that deal specifically with family abduction cases, both domestic and international. According to the U.S. Department of State, about 1,000 children are taken abroad by non-custodial parents every year.
Though he couldn’t speak specifically to the Shipman case, O’Brien said the center had dealt with numerous similar cases over the years and he could speak in generalities.
“With international cases, there are additional legal complications,” O’Brien said. “You have an additional layer of government and bureaucracy to cut through. Fortunately, thanks to the Hague Convention, we have agreements with other nations so that, if found, the children will be returned to the U.S. and to their custodial parent.”
O’Brien said that the typical image of a kidnapping — that a child is taken by a stranger for some nefarious purpose — is far more unlikely than the media portrays it. According to a 2002 release from the National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Thrownaway Children (NISMART), most children who are reported missing either ran away (48 percent) or were reported missing because of a benign misunderstanding about where the child was supposed to be (28 percent). About 15 percent become injured or lost, preventing or delaying their return home. Nine percent are abducted by family members, and just 3 percent are taken by strangers.
But custodial interference or family abduction cases can be just as dangerous to a child.
“The problem of child abduction by family members is a serious one in the United States,” said Ernest Allen, former president and COO of the NCMEC in his paper, “The Kid Is With A Parent, How Bad Can It Be: The Crisis of Family Abductions,” which was published in 1991. The paper revealed that numerous victims of family abductions suffer devastating consequences, including severe mental harm, physical harm and physical and sexual abuse. Allen suggested that these are especially common in cases of custodial interference, like the Shipman case.
“People don’t tend to think of it as an abduction,” O’Brien said. “They think if a child is with a parent, they must be safe. But, unfortunately, that’s not always the case. There are cases in which the parent does intend to harm the child.”
Even if there is no physical harm done to the abducted child, the psychological damage can be irreparable.
“It’s a highly charged emotional situation,” O’Brien said. “The psychological impact on the child in that situation is tremendous. They’re deprived of the other parent, and often the abducting parent tells them outright lies about the left-behind parent — that they’re dead or they didn’t want the child anymore.”
Still, it’s not a hopeless situation, as a recent local case revealed. Four-year-old Donovan Camberos was recently reunited with his father, Juan Camberos, in Syracuse. The boy was taken from his father’s home in Fairfax, VA two years ago by his non-custodial mother, Bambilynn Towndrow.
The case should serve as an inspiration for Luba Shipman — not that she’s given up. She’s established a website, finddeonna.com, and has hired a private investigator in England to search for her little girl. She’s also joined a support community, Forever Searching, which aims to raise awareness of missing children worldwide.
If you have any information about the whereabouts of Jeffrey or Deonna Shipman, contact the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 1-800-THE-LOST.
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.