Hope, help fade for the missing

The cases of Tiffany Sessions (from left), Caylee Anthony, Jennifer Kesse and Jessica Lunsford have made national headlines.

Long before Caylee Marie Anthony, Jennifer Kesse and Jessica Lunsford became household names in Central Florida, 20-year-old Tiffany Sessions walked out of her apartment near the University of Florida and never returned.

Like the more recent disappearances, Sessions' case made national headlines. Hundreds of people volunteered to help find her.

Eventually, Sessions' relatives became advocates for missing persons. Her mother even directed a nonprofit dedicated to the issue.

But earlier this year — a month after the 20th anniversary of Sessions' disappearance — that organization folded because of a lack of money.

"It's heartbreaking I couldn't keep the charity alive," Hilary Sessions said. "It's disheartening that we are not going to be able to help all of these families who really depended upon us."

Sessions' group — Child Protection Education of America — isn't the only such Florida organization to disband.

The Central Florida-based Missing Children Center also closed recently.

If these long-standing groups can't survive, what's to come of the other missing-persons organizations in Florida, where nearly 47,000 children were reported missing last year?

Police work with some groups

When Tiffany Sessions disappeared, only one Florida group, now defunct, would take on her case because she wasn't a child. Even the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children — co-founded several years earlier by John Walsh, whose 6-year-old son, Adam, was abducted from a South Florida mall — wouldn't help.

Today, a year after Caylee Anthony was reported missing, missing-persons organizations large and small serve in a variety of ways. Some distribute fliers, launch ground searches or lend a listening ear. Others focus on prevention efforts.

Caylee's case brought Texas EquuSearch and Kid Finders Network to Orlando. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement works closely with A Child is Missing, a South Florida-based group whose key function is to deliver phone alerts about missing people.

Orlando-based Child Watch of North America helped organize a search for Kesse, who was 24 when she was abducted from her Orlando condo Jan. 24, 2006.

Orlando police Sgt. Barbara Jones said that was the first time OPD worked with Child Watch. She commended the group for its work on that case.

Law-enforcement officials say the services some missing-persons organizations provide are beneficial because exposure is key.

But investigators cautioned that not all missing-children's organizations are created equal.

Some are legit and provide valuable assistance to families and law-enforcement. Other groups or people, however, may have intentions other than simply finding a missing person.

It's unclear exactly how many organizations exist in Florida that are devoted to missing-person's issues.

The Association of Missing and Exploited Childrens Organizations — made up of nonprofits in the United States and Canada that provide services to families with missing and exploited children — has strict requirements before allowing membership. Among them is being in continuous operation for the previous two years.

Only two Florida nonprofits are AMECO members: A Child is Missing and the Jimmy Ryce Center for Victims of Predatory Abduction.