(Introduction to show begins)
TODD MATTHEWS (Missing Pieces Host): I’m Todd Matthews. This is Missing Pieces and tonight we have Libba Phillips. Welcome Libba.
LIBBA: (Guest): Hey, thank you, and I appreciate the opportunity.
TODD: Libba’s an old pro at this. I think you’ve done a lot of public speaking, haven’t you?
LIBBA: I have done a lot of public speaking. That’s really starting to become my main thing that I am doing every day, it seems like.
TODD: Well, you’ve got the gift of the gab, and we’ve talked about that before. (Laughter) But, how you arrived at this, and I’m looking at an article in the City Times, “ ‘A sister was lost; A movement was found.’ Three time zones away in California, Libba Phillips is pursuing a calling that she first heard in Tampa, along a rundown stretch of Nebraska Avenue and other crevices of lost hope.” What does that mean?
LIBBA: Well, about 9 years ago, my sister, Ashley, had become lost in more ways that one. She was homeless and drug-addicted on the streets of Tampa, Florida.
TODD: uh huh
LIBBA: And, as her history would have it, this was not a new thing for Ashley; she had been lost before and had run away before. But, what was different this time was, that instead of her being gone for a couple of days, those days turned into weeks and then months. At that point, my family became pretty alarmed that we couldn’t locate her, and we went to law enforcement in the Tampa community and asked them to file a missing person report because it was so out of character for Ashley to be gone but, like a lot of other families that have a person with a drug addiction or alcoholism, you know, its not unusual for that person to have unpredictable behavior. But, what was unusual, was that she had simply vanished from the streets, and it really became a one-person mission at that point after we tried to file a missing person report, law enforcement told us that they would not file the report; that Ashley was a known drug addict and that that really didn’t warrant their attention into an investigation. So that began my journey into looking for my sister, alone. Then really, Sharon Tubbs’s first line in that article says is best, that this mission, to help thousands of other families that are in similar situations, began with me searching for my sister who was lost.
TODD: I know that this was actually touched off by your Reader’s Digest article that’s out in December; it’s still on the shelves right now, but I know that those are always so brief.
TODD: And I know you, and I know you didn’t get all your licks in, in that article exactly; it’s a very good article, but I know that you have, and all the audience will have the opportunity to read this article before listening to or reading this show, so maybe we can go from there and, maybe, expand on things a little bit.
LIBBA: Sure. Sure.
TODD: Well, what did we leave out; if we can start working on that article a little bit and what points do you feel like, maybe, you need to assert more?
LIBBA: Well, I think one of the main points that could use some clarification would be, you know, for someone on the outside, who has a lost person, when anyone in the general public thinks of a missing person, they might think of a person that they have seen on the ‘Have You Seen Me?’ postcards that they get in the mail…
TODD: uh huh
LIBBA: …or they see a person that is on the cover of People Magazine, and so they may not have a good idea of the fact that there are people who are lost and missing on the streets and could very well be homeless, that would fall into a category of what we call ‘unreported missing persons.’ At Outpost For Hope, we have a name for that, we call them ‘the kids off the grid’ and, basically, what that means is, these are people, who for whatever reason, have not been listed as missing, and that puts them into a gap that is really quite large and I would estimate that based on our research over the last decade, that we’re talking about 1 million people. And there are such groups as the National Runaway Switchboard that can back up that number as far as, let’s say, youth and teenagers are concerned. At any given time now on the streets, there are somewhere between one and two million runaways on the streets of America. And, Todd, based on your work that you’ve done, like with the National Crime Information Center, you know it doesn’t take a lot of rocket science to do the math, if we look at, let’s say, right now in the NCIC, youth under 18 as reported missing, could be somewhere around 50,000.
TODD: uh huh
LIBBA: And, if you take a look at what we know to be accurate of unreported youths, meaning kids that have been abandoned, kids that have runaway, kids that have been estranged from family and friends or kids that might have drug-addiction problems on the streets, that’s a million. So, there’s a big gap there between that 50,000 reported and that 1 million that is unreported, so when I went to look for…actually, that’s what I discovered. I actually discovered an entire population of people who were what we call, ‘off the grid.’ I think that the Reader’s Digest article did not talk about that as much; they really focused on the angle of the story behind Outpost For Hope, which was fine.
TODD: And the local story, being in Tampa.
LIBBA: Yeah. Yeah.
TODD: Now, you’re saying unreported, and that’s confusing to a lot of people; you tried to report her.
LIBBA: We tried to report her, and several times, and actually, the extent that we went…some I can comment on, some I can’t, but I will say that other officials and law enforcement from other states actually tried to get involved in terms of getting the report filed, as well as, coroners and medical examiners in the state of Florida. One of the things that they did was, which was quite unheard of at the time, you have to remember that when you’re looking for a lost person who is unreported, what’s important about that is, if they are not reported in any official database, if the person turns up deceased, then they become an unidentified Jane Doe, and so that that body might be in another state. And then the coroners and medical examiners and crime scene investigators have to work backwards to try to identify that person. And I’ve had it said to me several time over the years, “Well, couldn’t they just check fingerprints?” and in some of the cases that we’ve been involved in, I’ll give you an example, here in California, there’s a case of a young girl that was dumped in a dumpster and who was burned alive…
TODD: uh huh
LIBBA: …and by the time that her remains were discovered, there wasn’t very much that was left for investigators to work with, so in an instance like that, we would say, “Well, you have to have tissue in order to have fingerprints, and if you have fingerprints, they need to be in a database somewhere. And if they are not in a database anywhere, then the most you can hope for, is that the person who was lost, is found in the same city and the same county because there is some cross-referencing that is going on between those missing persons reports and those unidentified bodies that do show up.” And so in Ashley’s case, that was really frustrating for me, not only as a family member, because talking with coroners and going into morgues and looking at bodies, is really not a good use of my time, as far as keeping the hope alive.
TODD: But you learned something.
TODD: You learned a lot.
LIBBA: But at the same time, that’s what I learned, that there were so many. When I would call and speak with coroners, I would have the opportunity to go into the morgue to look at a body that could have been Ashley, what I learned was, well, really I came away with more questions than answers, at that time. I came away with, “Well, if that’s not my sister, then who is that? And why doesn’t anyone know who that is?” And that started pointing me in the direction that, “Hey, there’s this whole population of unreported lost people. How come somebody could end up a Jane Doe?” So, in working backwards, that’s how we came up with that category of unreported and who might fall in that gap.
TODD: Because some people don’t have a sister, Libba, to report them missing.
LIBBA: Right. Right.
TODD: What happens then?
LIBBA: Well, I’ll tell you that, you know there are many people, you can just go walk down any street in any major city, and you are going to see homeless people on the streets, and what can happen, is that we become jaded really, as a society, as to, “Well, that’s not my problem,” and, in essence, that person that you pass on the corner when you are getting your morning coffee, could be someone’s lost brother or sister, but maybe that person has become estranged from family or friends, you know, maybe the family has given up on that person and they’ve got a drug problem, or they have schizophrenia, and the family is just not equipped to handle that, and so they give up on that person. The other opportunity to fall into that gap, you might say, somebody who doesn’t have a love one that’s lost doesn’t mean that there are not lost people, is kids that are in the foster care system. So, a person can run away from a group home, and yet that child might not be reported missing.
TODD: uh huh
LIBBA: It’s just another file on the social worker’s desk and, “Hey, that kid has ran away before,” and they call those, ‘kids that go AWOL’ and they are chronic runners, so they may not have anyone left behind that really cares to list them as missing. Then it becomes somebody else’s problem. It becomes the coroner’s problem, or it becomes the crime scene investigator’s problem, or it becomes the community-next-door’s problem when they don’t have enough beds to sleep that person now that they’ve become homeless. Or, the other option, which is really grievous, in my opinion, and worse than some of the other outcomes is, that that person becomes a prime target for a person that is looking to exploit them.
TODD: uh huh
LIBBA: And there are notorious serial killers, such as Gary Ridgway, the ‘Green River Killer’, who has said that he specifically looked for women on the streets and girls on the streets, that he knew were likely not to have been reported missing; because they had drug problems, or they had mental health problems, and that in this way of working, he could kill as many as he wanted without anybody really noticing that people were going missing. It would be a lot different than just standing outside the schoolyard and selecting a child, one a month, to take, you know, versus this pool of people on the streets that nobody was really paying attention to.
TODD: Well, and they might actually be trying to elude law enforcement anyway, themselves.
TODD: So, how do you go and say, “I think I’m in danger”?
LIBBA: Right. Right, and so, oftentimes, folks that are on the streets, there already is a little bit of a stigma there in regards to addiction and prostitution and life of the streets, if you will, that sometimes doesn’t permit someone to really see what’s going on, when in essence, if law enforcement was really taking a look at that, they would be the first ones to tell you that the nexus for a lot of crimes, in terms of serial killers and that, are those types of people that are sort of blending and in preying on the most vulnerable.
TODD: You know, and there’s a flip side to this, the homeless people, the population of the homeless people that might be reported missing somewhere else.
TODD: So that’s…and I was determined, you know I’ve been to skid row in L.A., New York, Tampa; I’ve been in all these places, and every time when I got to the point that I knew that I would see some homeless people in the areas that they gather, I decided, “Well, what if I went and actually said something to them about Outpost For Hope or DoeNetwork or somebody where maybe someone is looking for you guys.”
TODD: But, Libba, I was afraid, I was afraid of them when I got there.
LIBBA: Well, and I’ll speak to you about that a little bit, and it’s a very…it’s certainly a feeling that, you know, I respect, and one that should be honored, and one of the programs that we offer to law enforcement is training, and coming in and doing education. One of those presentations that I gave at the Crisis Intervention Conference, which just happened a few months ago; this is a compendium of law enforcement, homeless advocates, social service advocates and mental health policy makers that meet and come together and learn how to deal with family members that have a mental illness, as well as how to interact with someone that might be experiencing mental illness. And a great deal of our homeless population has mental illness.
TODD: And I observed, you know, I kind of watched before and, you know I did see habits that were that person could be mentally ill, and that’s why I was afraid, I wasn’t…you know, I just didn’t know how to approach them, what exactly…how do I break the ice with this conversation? Is it even going to make any sense to them?
LIBBA: And I think that’s the main thing that we see that happens, even with law enforcement. In someone that has mental illness, you know, it’s just not a black and white issue. There could be co-occurring substance abuse; there could be some violent tendencies. There could be a reason that the person may or may not be very trusting of a stranger, and so in those types of situations, I’ll just give you an example of a real case that we worked on. Well, we had a family in the Missouri area, and they have a son who has been missing for about 13 years, and so they contacted us a couple of years ago and we agreed that we would work with them on locating their son. But, the thing to remember as we started this process and the thing that we worked with the family on understanding, is that, finding someone who is lost among the homeless is not impossible. It can be done. The key, though, is understanding, “Well, what are you going to do once you have located the person? Now what?” So, thinking of yourself, Todd, as a citizen on the street, and you see this person that is in front of you, you do have to ask yourself, “Well, what is the outcome that I would like to see?” and “What options are available to me as a citizen, or as a law enforcement officer, or even as a family member of this lost person?” And so, the outcome that this family wanted was, of course, was to get their son…to find their son, first of all, and to determine if he was dead or alive. And then, ideally, what they wanted was, to return him to the St Louis area, but what we discovered was that this person has significant mental illness and years, decades really, of being on the streets, and so we were successful at that time in helping the family get him listed in the National Crime Information Center database. However, once he was located, and he was located in the Tampa area, he immediately got out of NCIC, so he was not longer listed as missing, but the problem was, there was no way to get him off the streets, and it was not realistic for the family to put him in the car, take him home, give him a shower and have him show up at the dinner table. It just doesn’t work like that when you have someone that is so ill. A better opportunity would be to utilize our recovery plan guidelines, which are free and available our website, so that the family can make a plan as to, what is the outcome we want and what are the steps that we need to try to achieve that, and it is possible? And, do we need to get other people involved, such as, would there be a mental health outreach worker in that county that can assist us? What are the commitment laws in that community? Because you just can force someone into treatment, you know, into a psychiatric hospital; it doesn’t work like that anymore.
TODD: Well, you have to consider that that person is probably not even the same person that left, and I think a lot of people just want to go grab them and hug them and think that they will be equally happy to see them.
LIBBA: Right. And, you are right, it doesn’t work like that every time, and so in my line of work, we really have to redefine the idea of success.
LIBBA: You can find someone. You can have successful endings with the right treatment plan, and with the family being involved, and with other service providers in the community being involved. And that, when I say service providers, what that means is, whether there is a homeless shelter, or social worker, or a law enforcement officer or all of those combined.
TODD: Wow, you learned a lot in a short period of time, didn’t you?
LIBBA: Absolutely. Absolutely. It really was an eye-opening experience, and it’s ongoing.
TODD: Now, your life before this happened, it was normal, right?
LIBBA: Wow. (Laughter) Yeah. I was almost speechless there for a minute. (More laughter)
TODD: It was a normal life, and I’m kind of living the same kind of life. I don’t know what normal is anymore.
LIBBA: Right. Right.
TODD: This is normal. It’s our new normal.
LIBBA: It’s the new normal. You’re exactly right.
TODD: Totally different. Now, your sister is how much younger than you?
LIBBA: Seven years.
LIBBA: Yeah, she’s got a birthday coming up on December 18th. She’ll be 32…33, yes, gosh and I’ll be 40 next year. Wow.
TODD: Scary, isn’t it?
LIBBA: Wow. Yes.
TODD: Now how was your life…what were you doing the day this happened? When you first heard of what happened?
LIBBA: When I first heard what happened, I was working in my home office. I was a pharmaceutical sales rep at the time and, ironically enough, I was calling on psychiatrists and social workers and people in the mental health field because of the drug, at the time, that I was carrying for the company I was working with; was a drug to treat people that had depression. And it came much later that we learned that my sister has a diagnosis of bi-polar disorder, which is a manic-depressive type of depression. But, at that time, I was working as a sales rep, and I would happily go about my business every day, calling on physicians, giving presentations, learning about the medical field, and at night, I would come home and work in my darkroom and do my photography, you know, that type of thing. When I got the call, I knew that my life would never be the same. It was really kind of a premonition, if you will, and I felt really helpless being 3,000 miles away, as to, what could I do?
TODD: But now, you knew your sister had problems?
LIBBA: Yes. My sister has always had problems, I would say from the time she was a little girl. My sister was abused as a child.
TODD: uh huh
LIBBA: And, I was as well, by the same person, and I guess it would be fair to say that, you know in every family, you know, there are some skeletons in the closet. And, you know, sometimes kids in the same family, that experience abuse, cope in different ways, and I don’t know if it’s because I am the oldest or, you know, I had other skills that my sister didn’t have, coping skills that would allow me to kind of become the crusader. And then, my sister, you know, really went the other way, and from a very young age, had a lot of behavior problems and even, I would say, as early as 13 or 14, started exhibiting drug and alcohol problems.
TODD: Now, how did you feel when…it was almost, like you said, the premonition, you knew she had problems?
TODD: And you were in this life, and you kind of found your way to get away from it…
TODD: …how did you feel when the worst had happened?
LIBBA: Well, there was a sense of knowingness.
TODD: And wishing, “Maybe I could have changed that.”
LIBBA: Oh, definitely. There were a lot of feelings, at that time, of guilt and extreme sadness. I was experiencing a lot of depression myself in those days. It was actually quite hard to get up and go to work and go about the daily business of running a household and keeping a job. And, you know, my sister had lived with me for a time, for a short time, in California, and her behavior was so erratic that I had asked her to leave. This happened a couple of years before she left, and in looking back throughout the years, throughout the 10 years of doing this work, I had discovered that my sister has been lost 5 times in 10 years. So, I can actually go back and look at dates that she had run away, or she would be missing, or there would be a period of time where we had no idea where she was. There were times when my family would hire private investigators. My parents lost the deed to their house at one time trying to come up with enough money to pay all the various people that we had looking for her over the years and, you know, it was a real sense of helplessness thinking, “Well, gosh, we’ve done everything and the police won’t help us. What else can we do?”
TODD: Because I’ve known you in times when you didn’t know where she was. I’ve known you in times where you did know where she was…
LIBBA: uh huh
TODD: …and it was just back and forth, it seemed like for such a long time. And I’ve been in the same situation as you because of my brother-in-law. He lived here with us and we, basically, had to say, “You gotta go.”
TODD: “We can’t deal with this and your problems.” You know, he’s in prison now, and we do feel guilty.
TODD: And the same situation; there’s the drugs, there’s the depression…
TODD: …there’s the abuse situation, okay, which one was the root of the problem?
LIBBA: Right. And I will tell you that it is my experience, and it’s my professional opinion, that 80% of the people that are on the streets are lost in some way. Whether they are unreported missing, or they’re runaways, or they’re victims of exploitation, or there’s some mental illness going on…I will tell you that many of those lives, you know people became lost years ago, long before that became their physical definition of being, and as a family member, what I would say to other family members is, releasing the guilt is really important to being able to understand what it is that you can and cannot do. And, in my experience, the more information that you have, and the more education that you can give yourself about mental illness, about homelessness, about addiction, and learning to set boundaries; those are good things. You know you can’t, as I told the family in Missouri, you know, if you bring your son home, first he has to want to come home, but if he is so ill that he is a danger to you…
TODD: uh huh
LIBBA: …it’s not like you can bring him in and lock him in the closet, and you are going to have to set some boundaries and, if he is that sick, he may require a psychiatrist or someone else being involved to help get him committed. And that’s a very difficult prospect that a lot of families are not inclined to deal with. These things cost in terms of emotions and money and, “Well, gosh, I have kids at home. Do I really want this person around them?” And so a lot of it, you know, in my opinion, can be successful when you have the right information to know how to deal with it.
TODD: Do you see this as something that’s been misdiagnosed?
TODD: Missed. Completely missed. And we’ve talked this before on many occasions: self-medication.
LIBBA: uh huh
TODD: You know, only bad people do drugs.
TODD: You think that. A lot of people do think that…
LIBBA: Sure they do.
TODD: …and what they do is avoid it, but what do you do if it’s your child?
LIBBA: And that’s really the situation that I see a lot of families in, and what I would say about it is, we all have our perceptions, we all have our judgments and we all have our thoughts about the person that we see walking down the street, and sometimes, we don’t see it until it does happen in our own family but, I think, therein lies part of the problem. If I made it my mission to try to get everyone to change their mind about a person on the street, I may be successful 50% of the time and, instead, what I would like to do is offer that opportunity for someone to look at it a little bit differently, to say, “Well, the cost of ignoring someone like that is huge.” And to that person, the cost them may be taxpayer’s money, you know. It may that that person might be in our community committing crimes because they are high on the street, or that’s another person that is being exploited. And in a case that I can speak about from a personal level, when there is a woman that is on the street, oftentimes women get pregnant, and you hear this judgment a lot, you know, “How can that woman be out on the street doing drugs and she’s pregnant? What’s the matter with her?” and I’m thinking, “Well, you can’t put yourself in her shoes because it’s virtually impossible for you or me to consider ourselves in that position.” But that is part of the problem in that, when there are children involved, especially with a woman that is using drugs and she’s on the streets, that child, and that woman, for that matter, are prime targets to those people that are willing and ready to exploit them. So that is a cost. I would say to anyone who says, “Well, I don’t really care about a person that uses drugs,” and I would say, “Well, there are ripple effects to that…
TODD: Oh yes.
LIBBA: …and it could be an innocent child that is being hurt as a result of our communities not paying attention to, or making a judgment about that person being out there.”
TODD: Do you think the ‘Libba before’ before you had all this knowledge that was brought to you, I don’t think it was something that you were looking for in life, but…
LIBBA: Oh, definitely not.
TODD: …could you have helped Ashley? I know you have the guilt feelings, we talked about those, but could you have helped her? Could you have prevented this even knowing then what you don’t know? The ‘Libba now’ probably could.
LIBBA: The ‘Libba now’ probably could, but I have to tell you that my belief has really become…it’s pretty simple; I do believe that thing’s happen for a reason…
TODD: uh huh
LIBBA: …and I believe, in my work I feel guided, I feel a calling, I feel this work is a calling for me, and I feel that, if I had had this information all those years ago, it might have helped Ashley, it might not have. But, I’m taking in now, and instead, hundreds, maybe thousands of lives are being affect by the information that we’ve learned, and we put it together in family resource kits, law enforcement training and really good self-help tools that are available on our website. Thousands of people are accessing this information every day around the globe, not just in the United States. We get people from Israel and Japan and Bolivia, and it’s amazing to me, and I guess I could say, in some way, I feel a sense of XXXXX, in that, I had to learn to walk this journey, and it was a very lonely one, but what I learned has the potential to help so many others, and if I had had that information before and I had just saved my sister, maybe I wouldn’t have been so driven.
TODD: You saved yourself and your sister.
LIBBA: uh huh
TODD: Because I know that this has come at a cost. This has a lot of impact on a person’s life; it takes a lot of time.
TODD: And often this is volunteer time.
LIBBA: Yes. It’s all been volunteer time. You know, personal cost and personal sacrifice has been a big part of it and, quite frankly, there were many, many times I heard from family, from friends, “You’re crazy to do this…”
TODD: Oh, yeah.
LIBBA: “…Nobody cares. Who cares about lost, homeless people? How are you going to make it work? There’s no money in this.” You know, I really had to develop a very strong spiritual core. You know, my Granddaddy was a minister and he used to tell me, as a little girl, that God always answers prayers, and that prayers are, sometimes are, ‘listen’, or ‘wait’, or ‘turn left’. It’s not always the map drawn out in front of you, you know, from A to B, and I really learned that I had to quiet those naysayers. I had to just really kind of ignore that and say, “I know that this is really important work. I know that there will be some pay-off, there will be some validation, that if we give birth to this mission, I know that there are enough other people who need this help, that this has the power to change lives and maybe change policies.” And then it won’t be a burden, I mean actually, I look at it as a blessing for me to be able to do the work. Where it will go in the future, is really going to be up to public.
TODD: And you had a very smart Granddaddy. He must have been Southern.
LIBBA: Oh, definitely.
LIBBA: As a matter of fact, he went to seminary in Sewanee, Tennessee, at the University of the South, and the year that I was born, that was in 1968, that’s when he had his calling. Before he became a minister, he was a salesman for the IBM Company, one of their top salesmen, and he had a calling that was so strong, that he dropped everything. He had a very lucrative lifestyle and a very comfortable lifestyle in another city, and they moved his family to that little small town there in Tennessee, where I was born, and so my grandfather had a very strong influence on me. As a matter of fact, right before he died, two days before he died, I flew back to Charleston, South Carolina, to see him, and I knew that he was dying from colon cancer, and he still had a lot of faith, and at that time, my sister was missing and I was still in pharmaceutical sales, and he said to me, “Libba, everybody in life has a purpose; everybody on this planet has something they are here to do” and he said, “when I get there,” and he pointed up towards the Heavens, he said, “I’m going to see about that.” And do you know, that the very next day, when my Granddaddy started to slip away, that’s when I started to have this calling in my heart. It was like I could see it very clearly in my mind, what it was that I was supposed to do, and as if I was being directed. And, if you build it, they will come because, at the time, there were no resources to help Ashley. There were no resources to help my family. Every media outlet slammed the door in our face, and, even the National Center for Missing Adults said, “Sorry, if you don’t have a missing persons report, we can’t help you.” As a matter of fact, you were the only person that helped me at that time, and that’s when we met with your work at the DoeNetwork and, as a result of that, I knew that there was a huge gap, that there were other people searching and I met other people searching when I was out on the street searching for my sister. I would run into other people that also had flyers and would say, “Have you seen my mother?” “Have you seen my son?” It just became very apparent to me that the resource didn’t exist and it was one that I was going to have to create, and that’s what I did.
TODD: You know, I think you had exactly like you said, you went through the same process as your grandfather.
TODD: Just a little different influence on it.
TODD: But I know exactly what you’re talking about.
LIBBA: A journey of faith, really, is what it’s been. That’s why I love the title of that article in The Times, you know, ‘A sister was lost; a movement was found’ and I think of that for myself, that this journey of faith has really been a journey of hope, and a desire to really make a difference. You know, I went out on that long trek and, now that I’m back, I want to share those answers so that other people can have the success stories, and have them sooner, because that can make a difference in somebody’s life.
TODD: You know, those 2 articles, the Reader’s Digest and The Times article, they really compliment each other, I think, they kind of fit together really good.
LIBBA: I think so too.
TODD: And, hopefully, this interview will do the same thing, and I don’t really think that the Reader’s Digest article was lacking, it was just having to compress everything into such a small space.
LIBBA: I’m sure.
TODD: It was just the tip of the iceberg for you, I mean.
LIBBA: Oh, yes. And I’m really so thankful to them for the great writing, the writer and the photographer; they all did such a great job, and I was looking at the cover of that magazine and, you know, it just warmed my heart because two things occurred to me. When I was a little girl, I would spend my summers with my grandparents, and my Granddaddy and Grandmother saved those Reader’s Digests and I would read them all through the summer, they would save them for me, and on the cover it says, ‘Real People, Real Miracles’ and there’s this beautiful picture of this dove on there, and at the bottom left is a story about your gut instincts. And, you know, it was just one of those moments, where you feel like God is winking at you, you know, saying, “We’re watching out for you,” you know?
TODD: It’s funny how people in this business, and I think we’re really all in the same business of lost souls…
LIBBA: uh huh
TODD: …even God, I think, but, you know, how many times the same people have crossed paths?
TODD: We have crossed paths many, many times.
LIBBA: Yes. I mean, I don’t believe in accidents; I really don’t. I really have come to believe that people come into your life for a reason, whether, they say, a reason, a season or a lifetime…
TODD: uh huh
LIBBA: …and if you just are open to it, and awake to it, you’ll find where else you’re supposed to go and how that person might direct you to the next exit.
TODD: We may have to come back again and finish another life somewhere else.
LIBBA: Yeah. (Laughs)
TODD: I’ve thought about it a lot. I’ve wore this one out and I think I’m ready.
LIBBA: Yeah, I think next time, if I come back, I’m going to come back as a dog. (Laugh)
TODD: It’ll be a lot easier, you know.
TODD: You know, I thought, and I’ve said to myself, and I don’t know where to go with this, but I’ve spent enough time working on this type of stuff, and I know you have too…
TODD: …if I had spent this time in college…
TODD: …after work, I could be a doctor now.
LIBBA: Yeah, you could be.
TODD: I would be a doctor and having a really…but I don’t know, would I be the person I am?
LIBBA: No, I don’t think you would be. I think that you are, wherever you are in your path, is the person that you’re supposed to be, and the way that I look at, and I would say this out there as well, in so many families that have experienced those feelings of guilt or helplessness or loss, you know as I look at that myself and say, “Well, there were some really tragic things that happened, but if they had not happened, it really would not have served me in what I’m doing now.” So, I would say that about you as well, that the incredible knowledge and the incredible education, where it’s going to lead you, it could be some place really miraculous.
TODD: It’s scary at times because you think, “I’ve learned these things and how do I apply them?”
LIBBA: uh huh
TODD: “How do they apply?” And, sometimes, it’s just one at a time, and that’s when we decided to do this radio show because I thought, “All these wonderful telephone conversations that I’m having daily, sometimes 3 or 4 calls a day from people calling after I got home from work and we were just trying to noodle through their problem that they had…
TODD: …and try to help them find a resource, and I thought, “The call itself is a resource.”
LIBBA: Oh, it’s brilliant. I mean I really think that communication is such a catalyst for making things happen, and making your own media, I mean, Todd, making your own media…that is incredible. When I looked at starting Outpost For Hope, people said, “Oh, you can’t do that. You can’t do it online” and I said, “Why not?” It’s a self-help resource that is available…
TODD: uh huh
LIBBA: …24 hours a day. I think it’s the most cost-efficient way to do it.
TODD: Oh, it is.
LIBBA: And at the time, nobody wanted to do a story on us, so we just make up our own stories, or we tell our own stories, and that is the power of media, and that is the power of radio, and that’s the power of documentary films. It’s the power of all that we are seeing right now, you know with YouTube, and being seen, and these messages, and this work that you are doing really deserves to be seen and I think that it is, you know, take a look at the writers’ strike right now in Hollywood, it’s a really…I mean, this is good content, and these are real stories and real lives and I think something great is going to come from it.
TODD: I love to get the people that don’t have any other options, because this is such a simple thing, it’s not intimidating. After they get into, they’re really scared and they don’t know what to do…
TODD: …and then after, they are, “Oh, we’re just having a telephone call.” It’s low-tech. They can have that call and they can have that conversation.
LIBBA: Yeah. It’s an opportunity, I think, for someone to share what is real and authentic in their lives, and you know, people sometimes just need to be heard.
TODD: Well, I want to hear from the ones that nobody else wants to talk to, and then I want to get somebody like you that has, okay, and this is the other end of it, this person has something that they can share with you. So I tried to get people from all over the map for this particular show, and it’s not a media venture, it’s media but it’s not a commercial venture.
TODD: So I can do it any way I want to do it.
TODD: And, so far, it works.
LIBBA: Yeah, well, you’re a connector. I really see that as you being a connector, you know, because of all the people that you have a chance to talk to every day. You can look at it as, well it’s no accident that I talk to this person and the next person that I talk to, they might need what this person had, and I find that to be kind of remarkable.
TODD: It’s like what my Poppa said, “it’s like a swap-shop.”
TODD: You’re just thinking, “Hey, you’ve got this, and I know that person could use it, and that person too,” but you are doing it with lives. It’s one of the most enjoyable things that I’ve gotten to do and it’s the good things, not like when you are actually working with a body, or doing the reconstructions or that type of thing, but when you are able to take 2 mothers across the country and actually connect them to each other and then they write you a letter back and say, “She’s going through the same thing I went through but we found strength in each other.”
TODD: And you think, “Wow, now that was the most important thing that I have done all day was that.”
LIBBA: That’s a divine appointment right there. That’s what my Granddaddy would say; he would call that a divine appointment.
TODD: I try to get people with personality too, you know, because you and I connect really good with chemistry but I look for people and I say, “You know that person reminds me that person,” or they all have a degree of faith…
TODD: …and you try to put them together, and I’ve had people say, “You’re not a religious person, Todd, but you have a degree of faith.”
LIBBA: Yes. Yes. And I think that that is, you know maybe that’s the biggest test in doing this type of work and I would say, as a family member, you know with my sister, her journey has not ended…
TODD: uh huh
LIBBA: …and it is a degree of faith every day to say, “Well, you know, what if she gets lost again?’ She’s been lost 5 times before and it could happen and it might happen, and the odds are strong for that to happen. But, you know, again, staying in faith and staying in a place that, “Okay if I trust that everything does happen for a reason, then I can get through this,” because it doesn’t serve anyone, and I would say that as well to any family member out there, it doesn’t serve anyone to stay in a place of fear, and a place of anxiety, and a place of “Oh my God, what if I never find my loved one? What if my loved one is dead? What if…what if…what if…?” That does not serve you to take action and really be empowered, and I think that when you do connect with someone, like yourself, and know that you are not alone. There are other people out there experiencing this and you can draw strength from it, and information, and that makes the journey that much easier.
TODD: Now, you know where your sister is now, and I know that for a fact because we get to work very closely together…
LIBBA: uh huh
TODD: …is she still lost?
LIBBA: I can tell you that right now, when we got Ashley back, she had been exploited. She had been on the streets and she basically had been taken into prostitution and, because of some of the legal issues around that, I can’t really discuss who the perpetrators were but, suffice it to say that, the people that are on the streets who are the most vulnerable, and I would say women and children, are the most vulnerable, especially those who have mental illness and drug addiction. You know, in Ashley’s case, you know it’s true across the board, within any community, that predators will seek out the most vulnerable prey, and that is what happened in Ashley’s case. We don’t know all the details as to how she ended up from the streets of Tampa to the state of North Carolina, but we do know, when we found her, that she was very, very fragile, and she had been beaten very extensively and had suffered…one of her orbital bones in her left eye had been smashed. I believe that there was probably some brain trauma that occurred as well; it’s been a couple of years now where some of her memory is there but she experiences short-term memory loss. And she was abused on the streets, in various capacities, and just trying to live a normal life for her is very difficult, and right now she is getting help for her bi-polar disorder; she takes medication and she does have a structured environment, you know, pretty much that she is in. But, she’s an adult, and she does have the right to be on the streets again, and she has the right to stop taking medication, and so, at any given time, that’s a concern for me and my family; but it’s a day at a time, really.
TODD: Was she glad to see you?
LIBBA: She was glad to see me. You know I have footage of that and I’ve been making a documentary film for the last 5 or 6 years, about this situation, and I had a witness who came with me to see my sister for the first time, and so she was holding the camera, and it’s pretty wobbly because there were a lot of tears. It was really actually kind of a shock for me to see her, and especially to see her in that condition that she was in. But, I have to say, at the time, I mean we couldn’t reveal this a few weeks ago, but I can reveal it now…at the time that Ashley was found, she was pregnant, and so that was a really miraculous event for me to see my sister alive, and to see this baby that, if we had not ever found my sister, we would have never known she existed. And that, in and of itself, is a huge miracle, and it’s been a huge miracle in my family.
TODD: Now I’m glad that you are finally getting to tell some of this stuff because I know that’s been inside of you for a long time.
LIBBA: Yeah. I haven’t been able to talk about it publicly but, until now, as a result of some things that just happened in about the last 48 hours, but my sister has 2 children now, and they’re very small kids but with the help of my family, you know we’re helping her to raise them, and they’re very precious. I didn’t think that there would be many things that would bring me to tears and bring me to my knees after discovering that my sister was alive, but having those children in my life, boy, that’ll just do you right in.
TODD: I always wondered, did you ever ask her if she was glad to see you, why didn’t she just call you? Because you would have come and got her.
LIBBA: I think that, for her, where she was mentally…
TODD: uh huh
LIBBA: …you have to remember that when someone is on the streets, they typically do, and not everyone, but especially for women, there’s a lot of shame involved. Even if they were not doing things voluntarily, if they weren’t in control of their body, or if they weren’t in control of their decision making, you know there’s a real difference between a woman that is making a choice, you know, to have a sexual relationship with someone; there’s a real difference between that and a woman that is on the streets and is being used, and has a drug problem and there are pimps and other violent people involved. And it’s part of the reason why we kept some of the things quiet with my sister, there were, and are, some people involved in the situation, that are dangerous. And I think that, for her, she was afraid, and she didn’t have a lot of access to telephones and information, and I think she was ashamed, you know, “I’ve been gone all this time,” and she was also threatened…
TODD: uh huh
LIBBA: …that the family would be hurt, that type of thing. And I think, she herself, thought, “Well, you know, maybe my family’s better off without me,” and that’s not uncommon for people that have been through a lot of trauma, especially someone who was traumatized as a child, and then had some different trauma, you know, when she got older.
TODD: Is she aware of…I know what you’ve been through, I’m not sure she’s fully aware of what she helped stimulate?
LIBBA: I think she is not, and I think it’s fair to say, based on some of the research that I’ve done, and some other child psychiatrists I’ve had a chance to talk with about these issues, that when someone experiences abuse as a child, and particularly any type of physical and/or sexual abuse, that there are certain things that happen in the body to help that person to cope. One of them can be called ‘disassociation.’ from when you disassociate from your body, and I think that with my sister, what I say about that is that she still exhibits some of those coping behaviors, and she’s had periods of blackouts, which has been pretty frightening to witness that. And, she herself doesn’t remember certain things that have happened, or certain a certain time period that’s gone by and she doesn’t know who she is, and I call that a ‘fugue’ state; I’m not really clear on that. But there are a lot of unanswered questions, for me, in regards to what she can remember and what she doesn’t.
TODD: I have to find out, do you envision a time where, possibly, she’s working along side of you at Outpost For Hope?
LIBBA: Yes. As a matter of fact, we talked about that, and one of the things that, and right now she is an unofficial volunteer with our organization. She does help with things like recovery plans because, you know, Ashley’s been there, and you asked a good question in saying, “Well, why didn’t she just call?” Some of the things that we’ve put together in our guidelines, are utilizing some of those experiences, not just from her case, but from many others, to say “What more could a community and/or a family do to help someone sooner? Because that will make a difference and it could save someone’s life and it could save a child’s life, and I think that, in the future, Ashley would very much like to go and speak and share her story. I think right now, part of the healing process is staying in recovery and being sober; she’s been sober now for almost 2 years, and that’s a real miracle right there in and of itself. But, she’s got some challenges ahead of her and I think if she can find her way to share her experience, in a way that will help others, she will.
TODD: That’s the best way to justify tragedy, and that’s to turn that tragedy into something that’s going to help somebody else to prevent it.
LIBBA: Oh yeah, definitely. Yes, definitely. Definitely.
TODD: Now what about Libba? What are your plans?
LIBBA: I would say Libba’s also in a recovery plan, you know. (Laughter)
TODD: I know you have to be. I know you have to be.
LIBBA: I would love to go on a vacation. (Laughter)
TODD: I mean, your goal is realized. You wanted to find your sister and you did, and now you’re participating in her recovery.
TODD: Why can’t you just stop and focus on that?
LIBBA: Well, I think that’s a good question, and I think there’s some people close to me in my life that would like to hear me answer it differently than how I am going to answer it, but that would be, you know, if I just had it down to say, “Well, I just found my sister and it’s the end of the story,” it really isn’t because now, once I discovered that there were a million other lives out there, I felt like I really needed to see it through, and I needed to, what I call ‘capacity building’ which is, sharing what we’re doing with Outpost For Hope, with enough people, so that eventually these problems won’t exist. And I know that it is a pretty goal, and maybe not a goal that we’ll see realized in this lifetime, but I think that it’s evident when we look at the way that perception is changing, and the fact that these stories were in Reader’s Digest…
TODD: …uh huh
LIBBA: …and in other news sources right now, that tells me that the public is really ready to hear about these issues.
TODD: It is time. It is time.
LIBBA: It is time. It’s time. And all of my training as a public speaker, and all of the years that I was in sales, and all the many Sundays I listened to my Granddaddy preaching. I guess you could say it runs in the family, that when we have a calling, we see it through, and where I’d like to see it go is, in the future, you know I‘d love it for these problems not to exist, but I would really like to see myself as the ambassador of hope, a person that can speak and train others about these issues, really encourage people that they can make a difference, that even just by giving of their time or giving of their money in charitable contributions, that they are really helping us to support families and support law enforcement in making a difference. And, possibly at some point in the future, I could say, “Well, we’re really just a 3 or 4 person volunteer team, you know, we’re not this huge, corporate, grant-funded, federally-funded organization, we’re just really a handful of folks sitting around a kitchen table with a couple of laptops.”
LIBBA: Yeah, literally. And just a couple of dollars in the bank, and we’re making a difference, and so I think that, honestly, we can be a prototype for the way that other service organizations can exist, and I’d like to see Outpost For Hope become a program under another respected agency because we really do need those dollars, and we do need those policy-makers to get behind us and then that will allow me to go and speak, and serve in the best ways that I can.
TODD: Do you see it more in prevention or in rescue?
LIBBA: I see a little bit of both. I think that if we do focus on the prevention model and the recovery plans, and getting to the root of the problem, then we won’t have to deal with so many outcomes that can be negative. I mean, maybe, and as you know with your work as well, it correlates with ours, that if we can educate people about why someone could become an unidentified John or Jane Doe…
TODD: uh huh
LIBBA: …and what things can happen at the national and local levels, just as far as filing the report, for instance, then eventually maybe we won’t have that problem, but we have to do a lot of educating. And that’s really where we are now; it’s educating and empowering families, and educating law enforcement, and really educating society, and then I think that we will get the kind of results that we all want.
TODD: You know a lot of us had to learn this the hard way, so really it’s offering an opportunity for a short cut to learn from what had to be endured all these years. I’ve been laughed at, I’ve had doors…I’ve had people hang up on me, and I’m going to put on my tombstone, “I told you so!” (Laughter)
LIBBA: And I have to tell you, it is a little bit difficult, I would say probably I would say in the last 2 months, you know, I’ve chewed on my lip a little bit from not wanting to say that to certain naysayers, who, maybe at one point, they looked at us and said, “You’re just crazy. That will never work” and then I turn around and say, “Well, you know, here’s what we did.” And we took something that was so, you know, we took all of this passion and knowledge and desire, and created this really terrific self-directed website; we self-published our guides; I go out and speak and train, and I’m paid to do it. So there is a certain amount of satisfaction; I would like to say, “I told you so,” but, instead, I just look for people that have room in their being to really take this on and really understand it, and do something about it, you know, because there will always be naysayers and critics in every walk of life, and those are folks that just aren’t really part of my audience anymore.
TODD: It’s crazy, though, some of the very people that you try to reach out to, you know, I’ve found this, like with America’s Most Wanted and some of these other places, they actually come back to me after they wrote me a letter of rejection at one tine…
TODD: …and I know you’ve been in the same spot before.
LIBBA: Yes. Yes. Yes.
TODD: And you say, “I told you so,” just by doing it. (Laughter)
LIBBA: Yes, I know. I know and, at the time, what I’ve learned, I will say this…this is an analogy that I’ve used…about 10 years ago, whenever I would speak with, or try to have the opportunity to speak with media or anyone else that I had hoped would listen to these issues, I would liken myself to a little kid who was banging away on an out-of-tune piano, okay?
TODD: uh huh
LIBBA: Nobody wants to hear that, and the louder I got, the harder the door slammed. And, of course, they certainly weren’t going to listen to me, and I look at it as, “Well, I’ve spent 10 years practicing that piece, and I got the piano tuned, and now I’m playing in front of an audience that’s ready to hear me.” And it’s the same thing for you, it’s like, you know, and I don’t have to play very loud because people are ready to listen, and only those who want to come to the concert are going to come to the concert. You know what I mean?
TODD: And those are the ones that you need to reach anyway.
LIBBA: Exactly. Those are the ones that you need to reach anyway. So I try to take it with a grain of salt, even though, it was a bitter pill, at one time.
TODD: It is very depressing. There were times that…I don’t know…I felt worthless; completely and totally worthless.
LIBBA: Ohhh, yes. I can attest to strain in family, and finances, and wellbeing, and mental health…
TODD: Oh, wow. We’ve been in some dire straights before just because of this…
LIBBA: Yes, exactly.
TODD: …and my family said, “Why are you doing this?” but we did see some daylight, not as much daylight as I’d like to see…
TODD: …but I think that we’re at a new place. I think we are at a new place.
LIBBA: We are. You know, this friend of mine, who actually had faith in me in a moment that I didn’t have faith in myself, this is a few years ago, before Ashley was found and, at the time, I had virtually, you know, now I have a handful of volunteers but at the time, it was really just me, me and maybe one other person, and it was a very depressing time, and I thought, “Wow, I don’t know if I can see this through,” and yet, at the same time, I couldn’t walk away. And she said, “You know, Libba, have you ever heard that phrase, the light at the end of the tunnel?” I said, “Oh, yeah, I’ve heard that,” and she said, “Well, guess what? You’re digging the tunnel and you are the light.”
LIBBA: There is no light at the end of the tunnel; you are the light, and you’re digging the tunnel, and there’s no map, and there are no directions. You’re going on faith and when you get to the end of the tunnel, you’ll know, and then you’ll be the light and that light will pave the way and shine the way for everyone else. And that was profound. And I have remembered that ever since that day, and so that’s the message that I would share with you and any other advocate that’s listening is, you know, we are the light. We are shining the way and, sometimes, you do have to burden, it’s a little bit of a burden, you know they call that the cross that you bear, and then when you get to that place where you can put the cross down and you can show everyone else, and people go, “Wow, you know, I never thought about that before, but now that you’re telling me, I’ll never look at a homeless person in the same way again.” I hear that every day.
TODD: So it was just a necessary thing.
LIBBA: It was just a necessary thing and, you know, you draw your strength from each other. And that’s the way that I see these service organizations and non-profit groups moving in the future is, really, teaming up, is the way, to shine that light…
TODD: uh huh
LIBBA: …and really supporting each other, and really working on collaborative efforts to make things happen, because the more voices you have singing the same song, people can’t ignore that choir.
TODD: There are really some exciting things on the horizon. I think that the government has finally heard us.
LIBBA: I think so too.
TODD: So, we’re getting to work on some very exciting things. In fact, it’s taking me back to Tampa; I’m going to Tampa, where some of your journey began. I find that ironic too, because when I’m in Tampa…
LIBBA: I find that very interesting.
TODD: …Libba is there in some, you know, you’re there in spirit to some degree…
TODD: …and I’m going to Nebraska Avenue when I’m there next week…
LIBBA: Oh my God.
TODD: …just to say that I’ve been there.
TODD: Just to say that I’ve been there.
LIBBA: Yes, do that. Do that. I think that you’re going to have a great meeting next week, and I’ve very excited to see the results of that, because we are at the beginning of a new era and I think that we will look back, in 2008, on the last decade, and two decades in your case, and say, “It was worth it.”
TODD: Finally. I’m at the point where I finally feel like some things that I’ve worked on are validated by being asked to work on the NamUs Project. I finally thought, “Wow!” you know?
TODD: They finally think that I have something to tell them, and then I worry, “I’m not going to have anything to add to this,” and when you get there and a question comes up and you’re thinking, “I’m waiting for somebody else that’s college-educated to say something,” and then I’m thinking, “Well, I know.”
LIBBA: You’re the expert.
TODD: And then you tell them something and they didn’t know it, and then I realized, “They didn’t even know that!”
LIBBA: That’s right. See, I look at this, Todd, as when I was in sales okay, we used to call that ‘being in the field’…
TODD: uh huh
LIBBA: …I was out in the field, and I was calling on the doctors, and then you’d always have to report to the home office, and that would be the managers, the people that were never in the field. Well, it’s kind of like that in this instance, in that, we’re the foot soldiers, and we’ve been out doing the hard work, and walking the journey, and creating the map, creating the map that didn’t exist. And now there’s an opportunity to bring that information to those who have the power to make policy changes, and to really inform them and guide them in a new way, and I think that’s what going to happen. And I would just say, for yourself, and for me, and for anyone else that’s in this kind of work, is really owning your own value to say, you know, “Well, who am I to do this work?” Well, you were chosen. That’s how I look at it. You know, all these things would not have happened, in my opinion, if a power greater than me didn’t already have it planned out, you know, and at least I know I’ve got my Granddaddy on my side.
TODD: Well, we both do. I think, I know, when my grandfather was dying, and he would be out of his mind because he was medicated, and he was trying to tell the nurses at the hospital but, of course, they had no clue what he was talking about…
TODD: …trying to tell them about some of the things was working at and it didn’t make a lick of sense to them…
TODD: …but I thought, “This is what’s on your mind when you go. This is what he’s thinking about, that’s how much he loved me.”
LIBBA: That’s right.
TODD: He is so focused on what I’m working on that he don’t even realize he’s dying, but he did, he did realize it but it just didn’t matter.
LIBBA: Isn’t that amazing though? I mean, that’s the power of love.
TODD: Oh, yeah. Definitely.
LIBBA: I think that that’s…well, I think that’s amazing, you know, and that is the thing that keeps me going. Beyond the love for my sister, it’s really the love for humanity…
TODD: It is.
LIBBA: …and wanting to make a difference, and being validated…that would be the icing on the cake.
TODD: Oh yeah, and then we can die.
LIBBA: (Laughter) Oh, exactly.
TODD: Have you ever had an interview that lasted this long before?
LIBBA: No, I haven’t, but I thank you for that opportunity.
TODD: Well, we’ve let you just rattle on for over an hour now. (Laughter) We’ve had a good conversation. Now, I do want to get you back.
LIBBA: And I trust you to cut whatever needs cutting.
TODD: Oh, I think we’ll be fine. We’re going to leave it raw and dirty, and just let it roll the way it is. I think this is the way it should be. So, we’ll say goodbye to our audience…
TODD: …for tonight, and I’m going to talk to Libba for just a minute afterwards, but hopefully we’re going to talk to you guys again next week.
LIBBA: Thank you.
TODD: Bye-bye, everybody.