Family’s search for missing daughter ends 51 years later

Missing

(NewsNation) — For the first time in more than 50 years, the Highsmiths are all together this holiday season.

Melissa Highsmith is making up for lost time with her dad and brother, family she never knew she was supposed to have.

In 1971, at just 22 months old, Melissa was abducted from her Fort Worth home by a babysitter the family had never met — a woman who had answered a help wanted ad in the paper. The mother asked the roommate she was living with at the time to give Melissa to the babysitter, and Melissa was never seen again.

Thus launched a five-decades-long search for the little girl whose photo was plastered in all the places that become every parent’s worst nightmare.

Jeffrie Highsmith never stopped looking for his daughter.

“I’m very angry about the way she was kidnapped, and the kidnapper taking 51 years of my joy away from me,” Jeffrie Highsmith said.

Melissa’s story resurfaced in the headlines this fall when an anonymous tipster said a woman she spotted in South Carolina resembled the age-progression photo released by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

It wasn’t Melissa, but the tip did encourage her dad to use a DNA kit from the company 23andMe.

“And it came back as her children, my grandchildren … and I just started weeping and crying,” Jeffrie Highsmith said. “My daughters were crying ‘She’s alive, she’s alive!’”

Jeffrie messaged Melissa on Facebook, telling her he had been looking for her for 51 years.

“He knew my children’s names and that’s what perked me up,” Melissa Highsmith said.

Melissa, who had gone on to be named Melanie by her abductor, had lived most of her life 10 minutes down the road from where she’d been taken.

“I could have probably seen my picture at the DPS and I wouldn’t have even taken a second glance, you know?” Melissa Highsmith said.

The family and law enforcement are now figuring out how to move forward.

“For me it’s a lifelong dream come true,” Melissa’s brother Jeff Highsmith said. “You know if I could ask God for anything else, I wouldn’t need to. He’s already given me everything I ever wanted.”

Melissa Highsmith said she “feels like Cinderella” after being reunited with her family.

“They never gave up hope. You know I didn’t think anybody was there looking for me, but they never gave up hope,” she said.

The family plans to spend the rest of their lives getting to know one another. Melissa says she plans to continue using that name, as Melanie no longer feels true to her. She plans to get remarried in the spring so her dad can walk her down the aisle.

As for the woman who abducted Melissa, she has not been arrested. The family is still deciding how they want to move forward.

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