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Missing daughter reunited with family after 51 years

www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-63797314

Melissa Highsmith with her biological parents after reuniting in Texas


By Bernd Debusmann Jr BBC News, Washington

A DNA test has reunited a Texas woman with her long-lost family and ended a mystery that lasted over 50 years.


Melissa Highsmith, 53, was abducted by a babysitter from her home in Fort Worth in 1971 when she was just 22 months old.


Years of searching by the family yielded nothing - until DNA samples sent to an ancestry website produced a match.


Long known as "Melanie", Ms Highsmith now plans to change back her name.


The mystery over the fate of Ms Highsmith began in August 1971, when her mother, Alta Apatenco, hired a babysitter through an ad in a local newspaper.


The babysitter, suspected of kidnapping the baby, promised to take care of her at her home.

She then vanished with the baby, sparking a decades-long hunt by the Highsmith family, police and federal authorities. As recently as September, the family was following up a tip that Ms Highsmith had been spotted in South Carolina.


As the search went on year after year, Ms Highsmith - who went by the name Melanie Walden - was unaware that anyone was looking for her. Initially, she thought the family's efforts to contact her through Facebook were a scam.


A breakthrough in the case finally came on 6 November, when a DNA test on ancestry website 23AndMe connected Mrs Highsmith's children with the family, with the help of an amateur genealogist that helped them understand the results.


"Our finding Melissa was purely because of DNA," the family wrote in a Facebook post. "Not because of any police or FBI involvement, podcast involvement, or even our family's own private investigations or speculations."


Ms Highsmith and her parents met for the first time on 26 November. In the Facebook post, the family said that they conducted "further official and legal DNA testing" and are awaiting "official confirmation for the naysayers in this world".


"It's overwhelming," Ms Highsmith told BBC's US partner CBS. "But at the same time, it's the most wonderful feeling in the world."


Ms Apatenco, Ms Highsmith's biological mother, said she "just couldn't believe" that the family had been reunited after so many years.


"I thought I'd never see her again," she added.


No information has been given about the kidnapper. According to Ms Highsmith, when confronted, the woman who raised her - with whom she has been estranged for decades - admitted to knowing that she was the kidnapped child.


"That just made it real," Ms Highsmith said.


While the statute of limitations in the kidnapping has long passed, the Fort Worth Police Department said in a statement that it will continue the investigation into the disappearance to piece together what happened.


In the meantime, the family says they are making up for lost time and getting to know one another.


Ms Highsmith's sisters told the Washington Post, for example, that she plans to redo her wedding to her current husband so that her biological father can walk her down the aisle.


"My heart right now is just full and bursting with just much emotion," she told CBS. "I'm just really, really happy."

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