‘The police said, ‘If she gets caught using drugs, THEN it’s our problem.’ My sister was missing and vulnerable. I just wanted her back.’: Woman searches 20 years for addicted sister, ‘In looking for her, I lost myself’

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“Can the worst thing that ever happened to you ultimately lead to something good? During the darkest days of my life, I would have never imagined that would be my conclusion.

On the day I got the news, I almost ignored the insistent ringing on my phone. I had just gotten back after a long day at work and was grateful to finally be home. Before I could even say hello, I heard my mother shout, ‘Your sister is missing! She was last seen a few days ago wandering downtown. The police won’t file a missing person’s report!’

The room began to spin. My heart was racing and the panic quickly set in. ‘What do you mean?’ I asked. ‘The insurance company dropped us. They just released her and didn’t tell anyone. She left her stuff and walked out the front door. We have no idea where she is.’

I got on the next plane home – determined to find her myself.

The early days of searching were a blur. My parents and I tacked up homemade flyers on telephone poles and taped them to storefront windows. We checked daily with hospitals, jails, and homeless shelters, but were often turned away. ‘Maybe your sister doesn’t want to be found,’ we were told. ‘We have to respect privacy laws.’ Because of her mental state and drug addiction, it didn’t seem to matter to others that my sister was extremely lost and vulnerable. I remember being told by one police officer, ‘If she gets caught using drugs, THEN it’s our problem.’

My family and I soon changed tactics and began to approach homeless people on city sidewalks. To give people an incentive to talk to us, we sometimes gave out rolled up dollar bills and packs of cigarettes to complete strangers. But many of those conversations turned into dead ends.

We started going to known drug areas at night, which brought me face to face with the evil reality of prostitution and sex trafficking. Menacing looking thugs watched us as we approached nervous looking girls on street corners. I remember one girl got in my face and warned ‘Get the hell outta here. It’s not safe for you.’ She nodded towards several men standing in front of a liquor store. Shaking, but determined they would not see me cry, I got back into my stepdad’s car. The days turned to weeks with no sign of Ashley. Eventually, I had to return to my life and my job in California without answers.

Instead of my morning sales calls as a pharmaceutical drug rep, my daily routine turned to looking at images of unidentified remains that were unclaimed at the morgue. I was close to losing my job, but I could hardly focus on anything else. I just wanted my sister back.

Sisters stand hugging when they were younger
Courtesy of Libba Phillips

I began to realize that if Ashley was not listed as missing, the odds of her ever being found, if she was still alive, were slim. How would she be identified if she was dead somewhere? She had no form of identification or driver’s license with her on the day she disappeared. If she was in a jail or hospital, would anyone reach out to us to make a connection? I was tormented by the vision of Ashley lying dead somewhere, decomposing into skeletal remains. It dawned on me that fingerprints cannot be taken from bones and I was filled with dread that I may never know her fate.

I was left with the terrible truth that there would be no way to connect her body to anything without a missing person’s report. She was now part of a silent population that I called ‘the missing, missing’.

I continued in my daily calls to every morgue and medical examiner across the state of Florida hoping that someone, somewhere, would help us. One empathetic coroner suggested that we try to obtain dental records in case Ashley turned up as a deceased Jane Doe in the state. Again, I argued that we needed a missing person’s report. If no connection could be made between Jane Doe and Ashley, then how would they know who to match the dental records to? With tears streaming down my face, I hung up the phone feeling completely defeated. There wasn’t anywhere else for me to go to get help.

Sinking from the weight of my own despair, I began to pray to a God I wasn’t sure I believed in. And in the days that passed, it became clear to me through a series of coincidences and an idea from a friend to start a nonprofit organization, that I was being divinely guided to help…not only myself but also other families looking for missing loved ones lost among the homeless.

I called the organization Outpost for Hope. It started as a place for me to log my information and to assist others who faced the same roadblocks. Over the next two decades, I gained firsthand experience with many of the struggles that so many other families go through. I developed a growing frustration with what I call ‘the revolving door’. Most of our nation’s homeless with mental illness revolve through the door of emergency rooms, jails, the streets, sometimes reconnecting with family members, and then usually end up back onto the streets without a safety net, over and over. Some ‘success stories’ happened, and loved ones were reconnected with their families. But I quickly had to re-define what a success story is, as many searching families can attest that sometimes ‘finding someone’ is not always a happy ending. It is almost impossible to bring someone home from being lost on the streets, who has possibly been traumatized and/or exploited, and expect him or her to be stable without the right care and support.

‘Success’ to one searching mom meant that she got a viable tip that her son with schizophrenia frequented a certain park. He continued to refuse help, but she said she could sleep at night knowing that at least she knew where he was (for now). To another family, ‘success’ was getting a court order for a Baker Act. This meant that when their daughter was found, a 72-hour psychiatric hold would occur while they scrambled to figure out an affordable treatment option. Another ‘success’ was when a deceased transient found under a bridge was connected to a decades old case of a long-lost father.

After several years of searching for my sister, my stepdad asked me, ‘How long are you prepared to keep looking for her?’ Our ‘success story’ certainly hadn’t happened yet. We were sitting in the middle of a deserted park at 2 in the morning after an exhausting night of driving around. He told me he needed to turn his attention to caring for my mom, who cried herself to sleep every night, and to my other younger siblings who needed their parents. I wasn’t prepared to answer him with my timeline then. I thought I would go to the ends of the earth to find answers and nothing would stop me.

Walking into the morgue a few weeks later, I started to re-think that. By chance, I had seen a story in the newspaper about a young female homicide victim whose body had been found in a dumpster. I had to know if this ‘Jane Doe’ was my sister. ‘She’s probably between the ages of 18-25, about 5 foot 6, with long auburn hair, the forensic investigator said. The killers bound her hands and feet together. Put her in the dumpster and set her on fire.’ His matter of fact-ness like a punch in the gut. I flinched as he pushed the folder of photographs towards me. ‘See if you recognize what remains of the tattoo on her ankle before we go into the viewing room.’

I don’t remember driving home that day and was surprised to find myself turning the key in the front lock and walking into my living room as if seeing it for the first time. I collapsed and cried out to God. ‘If that girl is not Ashley, then who is she?’

It had been almost four years (or one thousand, four hundred and fifty-five days to be exact) at that point of looking for my sister with no help from the police. My family and I were told repeatedly that my sister had a right to be crazy on the streets. And since she was an adult, she could do what she wanted. My then marriage was crumbling from the weight of my grief. My bank account dwindling from the many self-funded search trips between California where I lived then and Florida where my sister disappeared. My sanity was slowly slipping into a dark void.

I now knew the odds of finding her, dead or alive, were slim to none. I sank further into my own despair and had become so depressed that I considered suicide as a welcome end to my existence. I had lost myself looking for her.

Thanks to the continued persistent efforts of a close friend, my family eventually obtained that missing person’s report…albeit several years after the fact. But at this point, what viable leads could they produce that we hadn’t already discovered on our own? Still, it meant that if Ashley turned up dead, maybe she would be identified and we would finally have closure. I would come to believe, as the years went by, that closure doesn’t really exist. Eventually my then husband and I divorced and I moved back east to be closer to my family.

For years I had visualized and prayed that I would have the opportunity to share the mission of Outpost for Hope with a larger audience. That day came when I got a call from People magazine to be interviewed for a feature article. Around the same time, I also learned that I was unexpectedly pregnant. I felt a deep knowing within that this was no accident. Becoming a mother at 41 was a divine gift that brought hope back into my soul and a renewed reason to live.

Woman who lost her sister to drugs smiles as she looks at her baby
Courtesy of Libba Phillips
Woman who lost contact with her sister stands smiling beside her husband and daughter who sits in swing set
Courtesy of Libba Phillips

I realized that I could no longer continue to advocate as a labor of love and needed a new way forward. Once again, I reached out to God. I wrote out a letter to Him. If he felt like ‘the mission’ was still important, he would have to make something happen without me.

I had to focus on preparing for a life with a baby. Combing the streets at night and answering crisis calls from families 24/7 could not be part of that reality. It was a few days later that I got a call seemingly out of the blue asking if I would be interested in my story becoming a Lifetime movie. I believed then, as I do today, that it was God’s way of taking the reins and raising awareness about the ‘missing, missing’ in a way I never could. ‘Bringing Ashley Home’ premiered in the US in 2011. The movie has been seen in over 30 countries around the world and is still airing on global television today 8 years later.

After seeing the movie, many people have emailed me to say they see homeless people differently. A once judgmental attitude shifted to compassion after realizing that a homeless person could be someone’s lost loved one. That isn’t to say that all homeless people are missing persons, but some of them certainly became ‘lost’ long before it becomes their reality.

I do believe that to be the ‘why’ with my sister. A trusted family member abused us both when we were young children, although my sister could never acknowledge what had happened to her. I witnessed it more than once and, while I survived differently, I carried tremendous guilt of not being able to protect her. I also carried deep despair of not being believed for many years into my adulthood. The person responsible was never charged with any crimes and my voice was silenced.

Little girl sits on ground in home with baby sister in her lap
Courtesy of Libba Phillips

There is a part of me that believes that perhaps this terrible injustice from my childhood uniquely prepared me as an adult to speak out and become a voice for others who cannot speak for themselves.

Ultimately, over the span of the next 16 years, my sister Ashley would be lost, and sometimes found, a total of 9 times. Sometimes we would find her in another state, living in a dangerous environment. We would bring her home, and she would be grateful to be found while we tried to figure out what to do in order to keep her on an even keel. We would attempt to get her help and anything that would support her stability. But then, without notice, she would walk out into the night in her pajamas and get into a car with a stranger and be gone again, without a trace. This cycle of disappearing would last for months and sometimes for several years at a time.

Woman who lost contact with her sister stands outside leaning her head on her shoulder when they were younger
Courtesy of Libba Phillips

Each time we got her back, her mental state was worse and she seemed to have no awareness of the egregious choices that continually put her in harm’s way. I’ve heard ‘you have to let her hit rock bottom before she wants help’ a million times from well-meaning strangers. But they never saw a dead girl in a dumpster or thought about what really happens to runaway and homeless youth on the streets. It really isn’t that simple. But admittedly I’ve realized it is a losing game of trying to convince someone to get help who thinks they don’t need it. At this point, I am powerless to stop more permanent and egregious outcomes.

My parents are also powerless to do anything more. They should be retired. Instead, they have lost their life savings trying to rescue my sister time and time again. My other siblings have grown up with the shadow of ambiguous loss defining every passing year. After 20 years total of trying to follow Ashley through ‘the revolving door’ and bring her back to normalcy again, her exact location today is unknown to me. I must wave the white flag of surrender and accept ‘what is’ if I am to survive. I can never unsee the realities of the dark underworld that I’ve witnessed and I no longer believe that ‘closure’ exists. But I do believe there is a bigger plan even if it remains a mystery to me as to how it will all unfold.

I’ve determined that Outpost for Hope can best provide help to others. It is an online resource that is accessible to almost anyone in the world who has a computer and WIFI connection. In my experience of doing this work for over two decades, I realize that not much has changed in terms of our mental health system in the U.S. We have more people on the streets than we have beds in psychiatric hospitals. More often a ‘found person’ with mental illness and/or addiction is the obstacle to getting themselves help voluntarily. It is my opinion that without mandated involuntary treatment options for families and more transparency in regard to privacy laws, some are doomed to repeat the ‘revolving door cycle’ again and again.

In order for these larger issues to ever be solved, we have to change consciousness in our society. Caring for our most vulnerable must be a priority. I pray, that in some way, my voice can be a catalyst for these conversations.

During the darkest nights of my soul, searching for my sister on the lost highway, I found my faith. I learned to trust my intuition when I had absolutely nothing else, or no one else, to rely on. I learned that prayers ARE answered – although sometimes not with the outcomes that I had asked for. I was often nudged, as a result of those prayers and intentions, to the next step on the journey and to opportunities that made a difference for many searching families. I have come to believe, even in the midst of what seemed like the worst years of my life, that there was purpose to my pain.

A friend once asked me if I had ever heard the phrase ‘there is a light at the end of the tunnel’. I nodded yes. She then went on to say that, in the beginning of my story, I had to actually dig the tunnel with my bare hands and BE the light I was looking for. That sounded really esoteric and philosophical to me then. But I get it now.

I believe I have accomplished what I felt God guided me to do. Sharing the knowledge, the experience, the resources, and information that I learned as I went through the darkness for the last twenty years. It has led to countless other searching families obtaining better ‘success stories’. Becoming my own advocate, and helping others, kept me sane and inspired me to move forward on difficult days.

Now it’s time for me to move forward into a completely new chapter and hopefully encourage others that purpose can be found in the midst of terrible pain. We all share struggles as human beings, and sometimes life changing events that can make us feel defeated and forsaken. But I am steadfast in my belief that even during our darkest days…. if we ask, we will be shown what to do. Each one of us is truly the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’. We just have to be willing to take the first step.”

Woman smiles as she wraps her arms around her daughter
Courtesy of Libba Phillips

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Libba Phillips of Outpost for Hope. Submit your story here, and be sure to subscribe to our best stories here.

Read more about turning pain into positive change:

‘I was paranoid, always looking out the window to see who was watching. It was an endless, ugly cycle. If I couldn’t beat this and see my kids again, I’d kill myself.’

‘Don’t tell nobody. I’ll give you some money when I get paid,’ he said as he was getting off me. I was scared out of my mind. My uncle, my favorite uncle, had hurt me.’

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