Maureen Himebaugh will take any opportunity to attend an event that could help bring her son home.
It was more than 25 years ago when Himebaugh’s 11-year-old son, Mark, disappeared. He was last seen Nov. 25, 1991, at Cape May County Park South heading toward a playground with an unidentified girl.
The only evidence found was one of the boy’s sneakers on the beach near his home.
“I’m still hoping that one person will come forward,” said Himebaugh, 65, who lives in the Del Haven section of Middle Township. “I’m not giving up hope for my son.”
Family members of people reported missing will have the opportunity Saturday to keep their loved ones’ cases alive and their hope alive in the first missing-persons event of its kind in New Jersey.
The State Police Missing Persons Unit created Missing in New Jersey to offer family and friends a place to gather, connect and learn from each other but also an opportunity to bring their loved ones home.
The statewide event from 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday at Rutgers University in New Brunswick will feature speakers, law enforcement and experts, and will open the floor for families to present new evidence, State Police Sgt. Joel Trella said.
People with long-term missing loved ones — more than 30 days — are asked to bring two biological relatives of the missing person, police reports, dental and body X-rays, photographs and any other identifying documents — anything to keep the case alive or that could provide a lead, he said.
“If they do have any information to offer, they should take advantage of it,” Trella said. “Go and provide as much information as you can.”
In New Jersey, 14,000 to 16,000 people are reported missing each year. Many cases end well, but about 1,100 are unsolved long-term missing-persons cases, and unidentified human remains account for more than 300 open investigations, according to State Police data.
About 50 active long-term missing-persons cases are in both Ocean and Cumberland counties, more than 35 in Atlantic County and more than 10 in Cape May County, according to State Police records.
Some families, after going through the initial investigation into the disappearance of a loved one, could feel ignored after a few weeks with no solution, Trella said. This program is to prevent the family from feeling like they are left alone and to put them in touch with others.
Others might also feel a disconnect with law enforcement or feel like their case isn’t being fully heard. This event will give them that opportunity to come forward, he said.
“It’s a sensitive thing, and most people are willing to share their information,” he said. “But it’s a personal issue.”
The main lounge will display information related to missing persons for people to review. State and local resources will be available, and families may speak to investigators.
Himebaugh, who works at Cape Regional Medical Center, will be a keynote speaker.
In a different room, families can provide evidence in cases and speak one on one with a detective about their case. Experts on the scene will be able to make sure their loved one is listed as a missing person and make an entry for them, if not, or collect DNA by giving a cheek swab to add to the file, if it had not been done already.
A DNA expert will explain to families how the DNA will be used — only in a database to search for missing and unidentified persons, Trella said.
Trella said hearing how some families of the missing feel unsupported or lost themselves, he wanted to try to do something. Michigan State Police have held a similar program, he said.
Michigan State Police Sgt. Sarah Krebs said it is on its seventh annual missing-persons event, which has helped police solve more than 70 cases. The event helps families take advantage of updated technology that might not have been available when their case began, Krebs said.
“It’s an event for (the families),” Trella said. “They may have a unique case, but they’re not alone.”
Himebaugh said she has accepted that her son might not ever come home. But she’s still seeking closure and hopes detectives and police are always working on leads.
“I just don’t want them to give up hope, because I never have,” she said of other families of the missing.
FBI, state, local and county officials will be on site, and police said they are prepared for anything during the event — a lead, a tip, a phone call or a person who might come forward.