DENVER — Before social media, before Amber Alerts, a 3-year-old girl named Lori Poland was taken from her front yard in Sheridan by a man offering candy.
“What happened on August 22, 1983 completely stopped the entire community of Colorado,” said Poland, telling her story as part of an effort to increase awareness about child abuse and neglect.
Her family’s trauma played out on national television, as her parents pleaded for information on her whereabouts.
“Everyone is transfixed,” described Dr. Richard Krugman, chairman for the National Foundation to End Child Abuse and Neglect, who was later actively involved in the case. “Because most people think they’ll find a dead body or they’ll never find a child again.”
But Lori Poland was a fighter. Three days after being kidnapped, birdwatchers heard her cry from a forgotten outhouse near the I-70 Chief Hosa exit. The little girl was found at the bottom of a 10-foot toilet pit.
Rare archive video captured the terror and relief her parents felt the first time they saw her in the hospital.
To Lori Poland, what happened 36 years ago was just the start of her story.
“People just ask, ‘Can I touch you, can I hug you?’ I get that all the time,” she said. “And a lot of times I see a lot of tears.”
Her memories of those days are just flashes of images and feelings.
“I know that I was loved and supported even though I was alone in a toilet,” Poland said. “I certainly think that was a lot of the reason why I lived.”
She lived to keep fighting. Three-year-old Lori identified the man who sexually abused her and put her “in the hole,” as she told Dr. Richard Krugman, her pediatrician at the Kemp Center who saw video of the interview.
“She was rock solid in her identification,” said Krugman. “Her body language, she said, ‘Mommy, that’s him,’ and she sort of reeled back and she was a little scared.”
In a controversial plea deal, her attacker was sentenced to just ten years, serving only six. He is now a registered sex offender living in California. While Poland wanted to speak to him to forgive him when she was young, now she has no desire to ever see him again.
“For me, it’s not really about justice,” said Poland. “It’s about being impactful. So, every day I just try and wake up and be impactful and try and be good in the world and prevent people from growing up and causing harm.”
Now a mother of three and a therapist herself, Poland is committed to making a difference for that 3-year-old girl, launching the National Foundation to End Child Abuse and Neglect.
Teaming up with her childhood doctor, Krugman, they both want to treat child abuse not as just a social issue, but a mental health and public health problem, similar to suicide, diabetes, heart disease and breast cancer.
“We’ve been able to see a significant shift in all of those things because there has been a focus on prevention education, research and advocacy,” said Poland. “We are doing the exact same thing for child abuse and neglect.”
To this day, the ripple effects of what happened continue to affect her, and she has battled fear of abandonment, anxiety and depression. But Poland has never backed away from a fight.
“I only know how to survive. And I will continue to survive,” she said. “And I will fight for all children who have been abused and adults who have felt like they have to keep silent.”
Her foundation is taking pledges to end child abuse and trying to get 10,000 signatures. Click here to sign the pledge.