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Taking the hardest calls


It's the phone call no parent wants to make — the one to say a child has gone missing.

But what about the person on the other line, the one who takes such calls day after day?

Cindy Rudometkin has been doing so from an old, faded pink building tucked behind Petaluma Market for 14 years this August.

The slight, blonde woman answers the phone near a purple sign that reads "Polly's Hotline." Faces of missing children hang near the sign, a haunting reminder of what her vocation is all about.

The organization Rudometkin works for is the Polly Klaas Foundation, which was created after Polly Klaas, a 12-year-old Petaluma girl, was abducted by a stranger in 1993.

An exhaustive search for Polly galvanized the community and the country, but the search ended in tragedy when she was found dead two months later.

For almost 20 years now, the foundation has quietly carried on the work of preventing child abductions and helping families find missing children in Polly's name, sending out missing children fliers, counseling families and working with other agencies like police departments.

Rudometkin, from Novato, had just graduated from high school when Polly went missing. She can still remember the frustration she felt.

"All you could do was watch the news, wait and wonder," she said. "I wanted to get in the trenches."

Six years later, Rudometkin graduated with a degree in psychology and plans to be an environmental lawyer. But when she went to a law school orientation, she realized the career was not for her. When she saw an employment ad for a position at the Polly Klaas Foundation, she applied.

Rudometkin, who now manages the foundation's response department, remembers spending her first weeks on the job reading through cases to prepare for the calls she'd be getting. She described it as "intense, frightening."

Finally, she took an actual call. Rudometkin thinks it was about a teen who ran away after meeting an adult on a telephone chat line. The teen ultimately came home safely. Still, the urgency of that first case sent Rudometkin's adrenaline "through the roof," she recalled. "I had an instant headache."

It was like that for the first year, each call urgent and challenging in its own way.

Fourteen years later, Rudometkin says she is still learning from every case, but that experience has made her calm and confident.

"Back then, I didn't know what to say," she recalled. "After a while, you just know."

It's not an easy job, and it's made all the more challenging by how few can relate to it. Other people, she said, prefer not to talk about her work when they learn what she does. "It's everyone's worst nightmare, it's taboo to people," she said.

But Rudometkin says she's never wanted to quit. She attributes that to in part to her coworkers.

Across from her sits the only person who can fully understand her job, Cathie Sanchez, the foundation's other full-time case worker. Sanchez started just months before Rudometkin.

"After all those years, we still love our job," Rudometkin said. "There's something special about this place, a sense of mission. We have Polly to look at and remember."

Across the building from the "Polly's Hotline" sign and the pictures of missing children, another collage greets visitors to the Polly Klaas Foundation — one filled with the faces of children who have returned home.

Those are the pictures that keep Rudometkin and Sanchez going, working each day with the same sense of commitment.

"It's the good stories, the bonds we have with the families," Rudometkin said. "If something happens, instead of just watching, we can do something."

Just months ago, Sanchez did just that for a high-profile case, that of Gina DeJesus, who went missing in Cleveland around the same time as two other girls, Amanda Berry and Michelle Knight. Sanchez sent Gina's aunt a stack of "missing" flyers to post around the neighborhood, as she had done for the family many times before. DeJesus had been gone for nearly a decade.

The day the fliers arrived, however, DeJesus was freed from the home in which she, Berry and Knight had been held captive.

"There were a lot of deep breaths, crying when we found out," Rudometkin said. Her eyes started glistening as she remembered the day.

Rudometkin still talks with parents whose children went missing as far back as 1974, long before the foundation was started.

"It doesn't matter when the child went missing, the fact they called means they have hope," she said. "There's always that hope. It's extraordinary."

The foundation hears from about 300 families a year who are missing children, and most of the cases, about 90 percent, end happily.

Early into her job, Rudometkin decided that, when she had kids, she'd have to quit her job. Otherwise, she thought, she'd be a nervous wreck, thinking of all the unspeakable things that could happen. But now she has two stepchildren, 12 and 8, and two 4-year-old twins, and she finds that, contrary to her expectations, her job makes her feel more secure about her children's safety. She runs through scenarios, teaching them what to do if approached by a suspicious adult, and how to tell a dangerous grown-up from a well-meaning one.

She said that, by doing the work that she does, "I don't feel as helpless."

(Contact Jamie Hansen at jamie.hansen@arguscourier.com.)