Episode 59: Erin Runnion, Mother of 5-year-old Murder Victim Samantha
In this episode, Karen speaks with Erin Runnion, mother of 5-year-old murder victim Samantha. After the arrest of the offender, the subsequent trial and conviction, Erin and her partner founded The Joyful Child Foundation, a national organization that works to help prevent the sexual abuse and abduction of children by educating children, their parents and the community.
Intro Voices 00:04
Where do I go? It only happened once. I think I was singled out. The phone calls began about one month ago. What is hazing? Something happened to me when I was younger. I'm worried about my safety. He said he was sorry. Can someone help me? Where can I get help? Can someone help me? This is You Matter, a podcast for the NYU community developed by the Department of Public Safety.
Karen Ortman 00:32
Hi, everyone, and welcome back to You Matter, a podcast created to teach, inspire and motivate members of the NYU community who have been victimized in some form or fashion and to identify resources both on and off campus that can help. I am your host Karen Ortman, Associate Vice President of Campus Safety Operations at the Department of Public Safety, and a retired law enforcement professional. Today, I welcome Erinn Runnion. On July 15, 2002, Erin's five year old daughter Samantha was abducted from their home in California. She was sexually assaulted and murdered. Her body was found two days later. After the arrest of the offender, the subsequent trial and conviction, Erin and her partner founded the Joyful Child Foundation, a national organization that works to help prevent the sexual abuse and abduction of children by educating children, their parents and the community. Erin, welcome to You Matter.
Erin Runnion 01:41
Thank you so much for having me.
Karen Ortman 01:43
My pleasure. Let's begin by talking about Samantha. Tell me about your baby girl.
Erin Runnion 01:50
Hmm. Well, obviously I am terribly biased in it. In a word, Samantha was brilliant. She was I almost in retrospect, I kind of felt like she must have known on some level that she had a very short time here because she was always in a hurry
Karen Ortman 02:13
To get stuff done right. Well, and to get good, like, she did to get to her next accomplishment. She, um, I called her turtle head because at three days old, she was laying on my chest and she raised up her little tiny head and it was like a turtle will come out and look at me to make eye contact. I AM HERE.
Erin Runnion 02:35
Karen Ortman 02:37
When was she born?
Erin Runnion 02:38
She was born on July 26, 2002. I had just graduated from college.
Karen Ortman 02:44
Erin Runnion 02:44
It was definitely, you know, not a planned pregnancy. Her biological father and I were definitely not a match, but I felt compelled to give it a go. We lived in a very crowded apartment, and when she was about eight months old, she started cruising, so she could actually go from one piece of furniture to the next, it was very dangerous, right. She couldn't get all the way around the apartment. Well, I had a dear friend who was blind, and when Samantha was about four months old, I had her propped up on, they call them husband pillows, the pillows that have arms.
Karen Ortman 02:45
Erin Runnion 02:50
She was sitting there when my friends arrived and it was their first time meeting her. Samantha was sitting all propped up on her pillows and actually turning the pages of her books.
Karen Ortman 03:37
Erin Runnion 03:38
My friends and I sit down on the couch and we're all talking and after about 15/20 minutes, my friend who could not see asked where the baby is. And, everybody's like, oh, she's right in front of us, she's reading. How old is she? She just could not believe it. She was literally about three or four months old.
Karen Ortman 03:58
Erin Runnion 03:59
That was kind of how she was she. She really loved to figure things out. We had a big heavy sliding glass door onto a patio and she would try, and try, and try to open it all by herself. It's one of my favorite memories, her finally succeeding. She looks back at me like this - okay, mom, and I just smiled at her and then she walked outside and she closed the sliding glass door. She just she did a little victory dance. I was hilarious. I met my husband when Samantha was about two and a half, and we became a blended family just after her third birthday. Suddenly Samantha went from an only child to the middle child. Her big sister now was seven years old and high functioning autistic and her little brother was only 10 months old, 10 months younger, so they were like Irish twins, right? I have to admit I took a little pride, people thought that pretty amazing, and they were inseparable. They were really darling. Samantha was super protective of her little brother. When he was in trouble, wherever she was, I swear she would come running and put her arm around his shoulders, comfort him when he was in trouble, and she would look at us like, you know, don't to be mean to my little brother.
Karen Ortman 05:22
I was the same way, I probably still have the same way with my brother, also an Irish twin, ot much more than a year older than me.
Erin Runnion 05:32
Yeah, it was hard to remember how little she was, because by the time she was five, she had begged me to enroll her in school early. She actually went to a private school for kindergarten so that she could start early. The year that she was taken was the first year that all three of the children were enrolled in the same school at the same time, so it was actually a really special year. We had full custody at that point and they just kind of all felt more secure than they had in the first couple of years of shared custody. It was really a special year. It really was a beautiful time. And, just...
Karen Ortman 06:16
Until it wasn't.
Erin Runnion 06:17
just, what he ripped away was incredible.
Karen Ortman 06:21
Let let's talk about July 15, 2002. How did your day begin?
Erin Runnion 06:33
July 15 2002 was a Monday and I went to work early, so, I was usually out of the house before anybody else was up and that day was no different. The night before actually, we had had just a beautiful Sunday. We went out to the beach, we went out to eat afterwards, we came home, and usually I read with all three of the children at the same time but for some reason that night, Kenneth and Connor and Paige his biological children were all together and it was just Samantha and I doing our good night routine. I put on some instrumental, like Irish dancing music. She got up and made up a song and we danced around and she's singing and, I literally got this - I just stopped, I just got the sense of incredible dread and sadness.
Karen Ortman 07:36
Erin Runnion 07:37
That Sunday night? Sunday night, and I kind of walked backwards and Samantha stopped and said, what's wrong mommy? I sat on the bed and said, I just wish it could be like this forever.
Karen Ortman 07:54
Erin Runnion 07:55
And, the next day it was summer for the children, they were out of school. My mother lived with us, so my husband and I were both at work. My mom was home with the children. Samantha and her best friend played all day long, they had a wonderful day. I called home just after getting technically off of work and my mom was very proud of herself, she had made a very good dinner - my mother was a terrible cook -so it was a big deal. She's like they're all eating it. They're all enjoying it.
Karen Ortman 08:30
What what time was this?
Erin Runnion 08:32
This was just after five o'clock. She mentioned that Samantha's best friend was sitting on the couch that they'd been playing and Sarah didn't want to go home because she wanted to continue their game as soon as possible. So, I asked if it would be okay if I went to the gym before coming home and my mom said that was fine. Fast forward, I find myself sitting in the gym and the same feeling comes over me. I can't move. I'm just sitting there. I sat there for 5 or 10 minutes and was like this is ridiculous, I don't know what's wrong with me. So, I went back into the dressing room changed out. As I was walking out I turned my phone back on and I had a dozen messages from my husband and my mom saying that Samantha had been taken. She was taken just after six.
Karen Ortman 09:20
What was your immediate thought when you listened to the messages? Did you believe it?
Erin Runnion 09:28
Yes, yes. It was horror. I didn't listen to all of them, I just saw that there were a ton and...
Karen Ortman 09:40
How far how far were you from home at this point?
Erin Runnion 09:45
Well, I live in Southern California so the miles don't actually matter.
Karen Ortman 09:48
It's New York City.
Erin Runnion 09:50
A 20 to 30 minute drive. Just about as fast on horse.
Karen Ortman 09:58
Erin Runnion 09:58
So, yeah, I listened to them. Then I called my mom. I don't actually recall if I called my mom or Ken first, but, um, my mother confirmed that Sarah had come running to the door with her mother, saying that Samantha had been taken and that my mom had called 911 immediately. While we were talking, I could hear a bunch of noise, so there were helicopters in the air already. She said the response was immediate. Somebody was out the door within five minutes, and they're looking for her. It was witnessed abduction, and so the sheriff's department responded just exactly as they should. It was totally all hands on deck. It was as if nothing else was happening in the county.
Karen Ortman 10:52
And how old was Sarah?
Erin Runnion 10:55
Sarah was six years old.
Karen Ortman 10:57
And Sarah was a witness to the abduction.
Intro Voices 11:01
Yes, right. Yeah.
Karen Ortman 11:03
Did Sarah tell you what she observed?
Erin Runnion 11:07
By the time I got home, Sarah was already being interviewed by law enforcement., so she was back at her house. We lived in a condominium community.,so you know, just across the courtyard. It happened about 30 yards from our front door. My mother is the one who described what happened, that they'd been playing behind, you know, those little walls that hide the water and gas meters outside of a house, our condo community had actual little streets, so, two neighbors down, there was one of those little walls and they would hide back there and play a game while Samantha waited for me to come home. She loved to jump out and surprise me as I came around that bend. A car had pulled around parked. A man had gotten out and asked the girls if they would help him find his lost puppy, and then Sarah said he rushed at Samantha and grabbed her and Samantha yelled to her go tell my grandma.
Karen Ortman 12:16
She got those words out, go tell my grandma?
Erin Runnion 12:18
Go tell my grandma. Yeah, yeah. And then she was screaming as he threw her in the car. She was she was found the next day, just under 24 hours later.
Karen Ortman 12:38
Was she found in proximity to your house or was at a distance away?
Erin Runnion 12:47
Samantha's abduction truly fits the description of what's considered a stereotypical stranger abduction. She was taken almost 60 miles away, think back again, Southern California, that means that they were driving in rush hour traffic on the freeway. It's 1000s and 1000s of vehicles. Ultimately, that helped, I think, motivate legislators to pass the Amber alert, it was signed into law in California two weeks later, and federally a few months later, because if people had known that the screaming little girl in that car...
Karen Ortman 13:27
Do you have any reason to believe that passers by heard her screaming in the car?
Erin Runnion 13:34
I do not have any reason. I know that the law enforcement took in over 2000 tips over the next 24 hours, like it was incredible. We didn't have the amber alert, obviously, but thankfully, the Orange County Sheriff's Department had done training with the National Center for Missing Exploited Children, so they did have what they called a Kara alert, which is essentially, a pre-plan for what would happen in case of an abduction. That includes having conversations with your media partners before an incident and so their relationship with the local media was impeccable. The Public Information Officer for the Orange County Sheriff's Department was a gentleman named Jim Marino who was like a father to me throughout the entire thing, truly an incredible man. He protected me, he made me feel safe speaking to the press the day after she was taken. He was the first day I met him and he came in and said, you know, you don't have to do this. But the press is out there and they would really like to talk to you. And it's like, if you want to just say something it'll help, you know, people need if they saw something they might be afraid to call and seeing you makes her real. And so I you know, you're so helpless. I don't care. There's just the world is so gigantic when you're trying to find a little 45 year old, five year old, and so anything I could do to help I was going to do so he walked me out there and I made a statement. He didn't allow them to ask me any questions. And then he walked me right back in. And every interview I did in those first few weeks, he was right by my side. And that's wonderful. Yeah, it was, truly, and I've come to know a lot of survivors of parents survivors. And I've not met anyone who was treated with the level of compassion, professionalism, that, that we weren't the entire time.
Karen Ortman 15:39
Well, it speaks to the importance of resources of networking amongst law enforcement, media, and all of the sort of professionals that must get involved when you have a child abduction, similar to how child abduction response teams are now very much a part of many states, definitely part of New Jersey's response to missing children. You have these resources that, you train with them, you work with them, there's a comprehensive list of all parties involved. The moment you get the phone call, they're all deployed, depending upon the circumstances, and time is definitely of the essence, as we know.
Erin Runnion 16:41
Yes, and I thankfully, I did not know. I had no idea that roughly 70% of stranger abductions, where the child is murdered, the child is murdered within that first three hours. I mean, thank goodness, I didn't know that. I was given context throughout each step, so when it came even to our family interviews, they explained to me that over 90% of the time, it's somebody the family knows and trusts, so we have to talk to you guys first, so that we can then work out from there all of the adults who had a special relationship with her. By telling me that, right, I was just pouring my heart out. Here's my life story, every person who's ever met Samantha, you're going to hear about them. It made me very, very cooperative, because they explained why.
Karen Ortman 17:31
Right. And that's very important as well, to not just inundate somebody with questions, but telling them why they're being asked.
Erin Runnion 17:38
Karen Ortman 17:40
So the sheriff's department is asking you to speak to the media. You had this tremendous source of support, the person you said served, basically as a father figure for you throughout this tragic ordeal. What were the hours like for you when you didn't know where Samantha was? How did you get through that 24 hour period?
Erin Runnion 18:21
That 24 hours was definitely the worst. There's no question. My heart just aches for parents of long term missing, because I cannot imagine. My mind was going into all of the darkest of places.That first night, I had to do something, so as soon as I got home my mother told me what happened. I grabbed Samantha's school photo envelope and started cutting the pictures. I ran out the back door and ran around the neighborhood passing them out. I had to do something that night. I told the sheriffs, I said, I have to do something. Can I put out posters? They said, yeah, you can do that, just make make the family harmless, keep them busy. So my husband and I drove around almost on all night long putting up posters all over, and every store, on every wooden post that we could nail something to. At any time did you think that she was okay. So, initially, I was hoping that her father had taken her. Her biological father was still in Massachusetts. We were in Southern California. And so my best hope was that he had come to take her and...
Karen Ortman 19:53
Was that based on anything that happened up to that point, or was that just sort of...?
Erin Runnion 19:59
He hadn't seen her since she was two, we had no phone calls. So, no, there was no reason to believe that he would.
Karen Ortman 20:05
You were just hopeful.
Erin Runnion 20:06
That was just the best hope. Unfortunately, when he got home from work in Massachusetts, he was greeted by law enforcement and they connected us by phone. In that moment, I knew that she was in imminent danger. When we were in the grocery store, we making copies of the missing poster, I had left my husband at the coffee machine in the store and gone to find tacks and tape. All of a sudden, it sounds incredible, and it was, I just felt this light and cold burst of energy go through me. Everything turned white and yellow, and I heard Samantha yell, Mommy, and I, I said. it's okay. I know in my heart that she was leaving at that moment, it was just about 9:30pm.
Karen Ortman 21:23
Did you ever find out if 9:30 pm had any relevance?
Erin Runnion 21:32
Well, what the coroner's testimony, and that's fast forwarding three years to when we were finally in the trial, but in the coroner's testimony during the trial, he indicated that her time of death would have been between eight and 10pm.
Karen Ortman 21:52
Erin Runnion 21:54
Yeah. But he couldn't be definitive about it. I can.
Karen Ortman 22:00
How do you feel about what you just explained, though, about 9:30, and what you felt at that moment? Does that make you feel something positive or negative or both?
Erin Runnion 22:17
Well, it makes me feel grateful that I got to feel her...
Karen Ortman 22:26
Her presence, yeah.
Erin Runnion 22:27
Yeah. Um, but almost as quickly, somebody who worked at the store was like, are you okay, ma'am?
Karen Ortman 22:36
Erin Runnion 22:37
And that kind of snapped me out of it. Instantly, I was like, I knew something about child sexual abuse and so I knew that sometimes if it's a traumatic assault, children are known to kind of leave their bodies separate themselves, detach. So, I thought, you just have to hold on to that hope. So I did not accept that she was gone.
Karen Ortman 23:03
Erin Runnion 23:04
And I'm like, you don't know until you know, right? Which, again, if I were a parent of a long term missing, I think I'd be insane by now. Over time, the next morning, when I walked out to our patio, not even, when I walked down stairs, I looked out to our patio and saw that there was a fully grown sunflower. Now, Samantha's favorite flower was sunflowers, we had planted them that year, but they had not yet grown. I hadn't even seen it germinate yet, and that morning it was six feet tall with 10 fully bloomed, fully open, red and yellow sunflowers.
Karen Ortman 23:51
Erin Runnion 23:51
Her favorite color was red, we planted yellow ones, like it was, it was like a kiss from her, and that that made me feel better. That made me feel like she was just letting me know that she was okay.
Karen Ortman 24:07
So you come out the next morning, you see the sunflower. Tell me about the rest of that day.
Erin Runnion 24:15
What do you do with yourself? That?
Karen Ortman 24:18
That, I don't know.
Erin Runnion 24:20
They're just the longest days. I felt like I was underwater for a long time after, like weeks, if not months. It was like everything was distorted, the color of the world and its texture, even like, I literally felt like I was walking underwater. Yeah, you just do what you have to do. Yeah.
Karen Ortman 24:45
A lot of media presence still?
Erin Runnion 24:49
Huge. She's found on Tuesday around 3:30 in the afternoon, I was at the sheriff's department.
Karen Ortman 24:57
And were you already at the sheriff's department when she was found or did you go to the sheriff's department because she was found?
Erin Runnion 25:06
We had been asked to come into the station because we had not yet been. So, that morning, my family was driven in two separate cars to all be formally interviewed in the station. I was in an interview, my family had been put in the the nice waiting room, if you will, right. It was a very nice waiting room, and it had a television and they had turned on the cartoon channel for the kids, unfortunately, not knowing my mother because my mother could not stand cartoons, she was a total news junkie. Anyway, she changed the channel to the news. So, I'm down the hall. I have no idea where they are, and I hear my husband screaming, where is Erin? Where is Erin, does she know? It had interrupted programming with a helicopter shot over an image, too far to make out, but it's Samantha's body on a hilltop, and saying that the body of a young girl has been found. That's how my family found out. Moments later they came in and told me. Yeah, but, as it turned out, it was the next county over. That county was literally already on the phone with our county sheriff. The issue was that, something that you know you just don't account for, but the media is literally listening to your radios as you're tracking down leads.
Karen Ortman 26:43
Erin Runnion 26:43
And so, they had caravans of media following...
Karen Ortman 26:47
Yeah, following the tips and leads.
Erin Runnion 26:49
Yeah, so those helicopters, news media helicopters, were right up there at the exact moment that she was discovered.
Karen Ortman 26:58
And when you heard that a girl's body had been found.
Erin Runnion 27:06
Karen Ortman 27:08
What were your thoughts and feelings at that moment?
Erin Runnion 27:13
Well, they said, she hasn't been identified yet. My husband said, are there any other missing little girls right now? I said, no. I felt like, I physically fell to the floor and screamed out, why do they have to kill them? I'll never understand that. I will never understand it.
Karen Ortman 27:48
Erin Runnion 27:51
Karen Ortman 27:54
Were you able to see her one last time?
Erin Runnion 27:59
No, actually. I could have, but when they said they needed somebody to come in and positively identify her my mom volunteered. She said to me, I really don't think that should be how you are going to remember her, and she's like, please let me do it. When she came back, she said, yeah, that was our little tiger. I used to call her Mete Grete, because she was a little, you know, she was proud, and she was not afraid to say how she felt. My mom said she looked mad, she looked very angry about the whole thing. She fought him. His DNA was under her nails. She scratched him till he bled. And when you think about it, this guy was over 200 pounds, she was 41 pounds.
Karen Ortman 28:53
Well, just the fact that she's getting abducted, and she yells to Sarah to go tell Grandma. I mean, how many five year olds would feel strong enough to say that when there's a an adult grabbing them and abducting them? Yeah, that says something about her right there.
Erin Runnion 29:13
Right. Yeah. I said if anybody is going to get away, it's going to be her. Like if any little child can get away, it would be her. She was fast and she was determined, she was very willful in the best possible way.
Karen Ortman 29:28
So the offender responsible for abducting Samantha is identified based upon Sarah's description, which is pretty good from what I understand.
Erin Runnion 29:48
Karen Ortman 29:49
For a six year old.
Erin Runnion 29:51
Yeah, Michael Street, he actually has a book but he's a sketch artist and he interviewed Sarah and he said that she was an amazing witness. She was very detailed. They really questioned her on his ethnicity and she was like 100% certain. You look at the sketch versus his face and it's same person; the same person. So she was a key witness. The other person, I believe it was a day or two later, that a woman called and left a left a tip that, it wasn't just a tip, she said, I know exactly what this is. It was once it was the combination of the sketch and it had gotten published where we live and the name of the condominium community, and she said, my stepdaughter's cousin used to live there, the two of them were both sexually abused by this person and this is where he lives. He was recently, about a year earlier almost to the day, had been acquitted of multiple counts of child sexual abuse against them.
Karen Ortman 31:04
Erin Runnion 31:05
Yeah, so, he had two previous victims who are the same age as Samantha, but by the time they went to trial, they were 9 or 10 years old.
Karen Ortman 31:17
So does the system work? This begs the question, particularly as it pertains to child victims.
Erin Runnion 31:27
No, we fail our child victims on so many levels. In that case, I have to say, it was the only child molestation case in the county of Riverside that year that resulted in an acquittal.
Karen Ortman 31:44
So there had been others that resulted in convictions?
Erin Runnion 31:47
Yes. This was his first accusation. There were three girls in the original complaint, one of them decided not to testify when it came to trial. One of the silver linings during the murder trial itself was that the judge actually allowed those previous victims to testify. He had a very specific way of molesting children. He worked in a medical equipment, factory and he used the tubes and things to abuse the girls, so young victims were able to describe what happened to them. The one girl who hadn't testified when she was little, was able to explain why, and it was that her mother was physically abusive, and she was afraid that because she was molested at her dad's house, they were housemates, she was afraid her dad would lose custody and she'd have to go live with her abusive mom.
Karen Ortman 32:52
Erin Runnion 32:53
So, that's why she didn't testify, but when it came to the murder trial, this little girl, she was so brave, she just stared at the perpetrator. Oh! It was so powerful, so vindicating for her. I was really glad.
Karen Ortman 33:11
I don't know who she is but I'm very proud of her.
Erin Runnion 33:14
Karen Ortman 33:16
That's awesome. Are you, we won't use his name, okay.
Erin Runnion 33:26
I appreciate that. I don't like I don't I don't like murderers to be remembered.
Karen Ortman 33:30
Yeah, and I think that is all too often. People are so free to speak the names of the offenders, and then the victims are just the victims, you know. So that's why I like to give Samantha a name, an identity, talk about her in life.
Erin Runnion 33:52
And well, I think people need to understand that there is actual harm in making murderers and violent criminals famous, because it's coming from a place of narcissism. It's coming from the need to do something that makes a big impact. Yes. And when we fulfill that dream, you're not only helping somebody who did a horrific thing, but you're also encouraging others.
Karen Ortman 34:21
To copycat. So you had to trial and there was a conviction.
Erin Runnion 34:29
There was a conviction on all counts, and he was sentenced to death. California technically has the death penalty now, but no one has been executed in over 10 years, and our current governor has put a moratorium on the death penalty. I was told, at the time, that the reason it was worth going for the death penalty was that even if I didn't agree with it personally, the reality is that life without parole doesn't mean that. Life without parole mean, about 30 years maybe, and then mandatory parole hearings and for the rest of MY life I would have to go and sit right there. So, I supported the notion of him being behind bars for the rest of his life, and in California that's what the death penalty means.
Karen Ortman 35:19
Are you still in touch with Sarah?
Erin Runnion 35:22
I am. Yeah.
Karen Ortman 35:24
Erin Runnion 35:25
Yeah, she's doing great. She's amazing. She was a really sharp little girl at six and really wonderful to have her...
Karen Ortman 35:33
And I'm sure she's an amazing adult.
Erin Runnion 35:35
Yeah, she's good.
Karen Ortman 35:37
Let's talk about the Joyful Child Foundation, that has a an emblem, which is a beautiful sunflower. I'm looking at it right now behind you.
Erin Runnion 35:52
Karen Ortman 35:53
And we know what the sunflower means. That was Samantha's favorite flower. So, what is the Joyful Child Foundation?
Erin Runnion 36:02
Well, when she was taken, I had to understand how because really, stranger abductions are rare. I just couldn't believe it. When we went on to the national Center for Missing & Exploited Children's website the night that she was taken, the first statistic we saw was that every year there are 58,000, non-family related abductions. I just thought, how is there not a national movement to stop this? I just couldn't wrap my head around how pervasive these crimes are. The more that I learned about child victims, the fact that we don't actually hear most of their stories, I just felt compelled because we did have an amazing response from the media and the public. 4000 people showed up to her memorial service, and it was broadcast on international news live.
Karen Ortman 37:01
And, e know we haven't heard that about 58,000 abducted and missing children, right?
Erin Runnion 37:08
No, most of those stories never get told, Most of those families aren't given a voice to make a change. I really felt a responsibility not just to Samantha, but to all of the children we never hear about, to give them a voice and to try and prevent these crimes from happening.
Karen Ortman 37:26
So how do you reach those families, those 58,000 families?
Erin Runnion 37:34
How do you reach them?
Karen Ortman 37:35
How do you reach them through your foundation? You said you wanted to give them a voice, the 58,000 reported missing children a year, how are they giving a voice through your foundation?
Erin Runnion 37:49
Well, our effort is to prevent it from happening to anyone. I personally advocate for laws that better protect children. We helped pass the Internet Crimes Against Children Protect Act (ICAC), to fund those ICAC task forces to stop child exploitation to catch those perpetrators...
Karen Ortman 38:08
Yes, I'm familiar with them.
Erin Runnion 38:09
...so I'm very passionate about the ICAC and the need for that specific resource for law enforcement agencies, and the need for dedicated officers not to have to split their time between hunting child predators online and patrolling. As a person, I am an advocate, as a foundation, we are dedicated to prevention. We developed and launched our own programs in 2013, they are called the Be Brave, Be Safe program and we do adult education, teacher training as well as a elementary curriculum. We teach children, really from a child's perspective, age appropriate context and skills to realistically get away from anybody who makes them uncomfortable or afraid. That includes actual physical defense skills should they face a worst case scenario like Samantha.
Karen Ortman 39:06
Really? How does one access the resources and particularly the training and education that you offer?
Erin Runnion 39:15
We have a lot of free resources available on our website, it's thejoyfulchild.org. It's "the", you have to put "the" thejoyfulchild org. In addition to that, we have been working, thankfully, for the last two years to bring all of our programs online. We now offer live webinar classes for children and teens, as well as parents. In fact, I give at least one of those every month, so that's very exciting. The silver silver lining of the pandemic has been that it forced us to go ahead and launch before we were 100% ready, and offer programs starting in June. So now, we can train anyone.
Karen Ortman 39:59
That's wonderful. Do you find that your your listeners or those who are seeking your your resources, are they primarily in California? Are you able to identify how far your reach is?
Erin Runnion 40:20
I would say that in the time it took me to develop our curriculum, I did a lot less media. Retrospective is 20/20. When you look back, you're like, oh, I probably shouldn't have done that, because people have forgotten, and that's okay. I think it's important that we continue to make our programs relevant to what is happening now. We do live in a different place. There was no Facebook when Samantha was taken, the internet was brand new.Now, when we think about child safety, we're all acutely aware of online predators, of online exploitation of children, and of their ability and exposure to unfiltered content.
Karen Ortman 41:08
Erin Runnion 41:09
And, all of that is a huge new layer that we have to address, right? Absolutely. Well, to the extent that listeners of You Matter can log on to thejoyfulchild.org website. I'm hoping that your reach grows tremendously. Thank you.
Karen Ortman 41:33
I so appreciate the work that you do, having worked special victim cases for well over 20 years. The importance of the work you do cannot be overstated. I'm thrilled to have met you, and honored to speak to you, and appreciate you sharing Samantha's story.
Erin Runnion 42:05
I appreciate how you have dedicated your career to making this world a safer place for all of us. Thank you.
Karen Ortman 42:11
Well, my pleasure. But really, I mean, this has to be really difficult no matter how many times you talk about it, and I'm extremely appreciative because I do believe it makes a difference.
Erin Runnion 42:26
Thank you. I do too. Nobody wants to believe that this can happen to them, and it's kind, of my job to remind you that it can. So, yeah, appreciate, be grateful for all that you have right now in this moment. Don't waste it.
Karen Ortman 42:41
Were Samantha alive today, what do you think she would be doing?
Erin Runnion 42:48
Graduating from college.
Karen Ortman 42:51
Erin Runnion 42:51
She probably would have graduated a year or two ago. You know, I don't know. I don't know. We didn't, we didn't get to know.
Karen Ortman 42:59
Erin Runnion 43:00
I am often asked why I named her Samantha, and I will share with you that it was because a friend said to me, her her father and I couldn't agree on names, so one reason is because it was one of the very few that he and I both liked. Ah, and a friend of mine said, you know, I think she could be a Supreme Court Justice. It needs to be a name that could be a Justice.
Karen Ortman 43:23
So that is why she was named Samantha? Do you know, I was thinking lawyer? I was thinking I could see, like, I could see her being a prosecutor. I could see her really fighting for justice in any sort of area.
Erin Runnion 43:38
I did used to joke that she was going to be one because she would leave me a drawing or a letter, like on the day, every day, and it would say things like, Are we going to the park today? Yes. No. Maybe. Sign here.
Karen Ortman 43:54
Erin Runnion 43:54
No promises Mom, this is a contract.
Karen Ortman 43:57
She wanted a commitment.
Erin Runnion 44:01
Karen Ortman 44:03
That is great. Is there anything you would like to add that I have not already asked?
Erin Runnion 44:09
Well, I think that I would encourage your listeners to have some brave conversations around this topic too. Anytime we're talking about crimes against children, or abduction, or assault against anyone, it hurts. It's a very difficult subject. It's upsetting. When we are triggered that way, I think it's really important for us to dig deeper to actually engage in some conversation around it. If you go to the joyfulchild.org, you'll see that we have resources for parents to actually start those conversations. That's why I started it, because there are so many things I wish I had the courage to talk to her about, to teach her. Don't wait.
Karen Ortman 44:58
I would submit to you that you did a great job. She was five years old and yelled to her friend as she's getting abducted and being taken by a grown man. She was a fighter.
Erin Runnion 45:16
Karen Ortman 45:16
Absolutely a fighter.
Erin Runnion 45:20
And I do, I truly believe that if I had known then what I know now, he couldn't have gotten her in the car. It's very hard to pick up the child has torpedoing your eyeballs.
Karen Ortman 45:29
Yeah, that's true. That's true. Advice well taken. Thank you to my guest, Erin and to all of our listeners for joining us for today's episode of You Matter if any information presented today was triggering or disturbing, please feel free to contact the Wellness Exchange at 212-443-9999, or NYU's Department of Public Safety and their Victim Services Unit at 212-998-2222. Please share, like, and subscribe to You Matter on Apple podcasts, Google Play, Tune in or Spotify.