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‘Best feeling in the world’: Missing daughter found after 51 years

Kidnapping victim meets her parents 51 years after her abduction.

Kidnapping victim meets her parents 51 years after her abduction. Photo: Sharon Rose Highsmith/Facebook

An American woman has enjoyed an emotional reunion with her family, more than five decades after she was kidnapped as a toddler.

Melissa Highsmith was just 21 months old when she was abducted from her home in Fort Worth, Texas, by a babysitter in 1971.

Her family and US authorities had searched for her in the 51 years since, never giving up hope. They followed up numerous potential sightings across other US states, but until last weekend they had been fruitless.

Despite years of publicity from podcasts and the help of police and private investigators, in the end it was a commercial DNA test that finally connected Ms Highsmith to her birth family. They learned she had spent most of her life in Fort Worth, spending her missing years growing up under the name Melanie Walden.

Ms Highsmith’s sister, Sharon Highsmith, posted photos to Facebook of the happy family reunion between Melissa, her parents and her siblings.

“We are beyond thrilled to announce that WE FOUND MELISSA!!!” she said.

Parents Alta Apantenco and Jeffrie Highsmith were finally reunited with their long-lost daughter on Sunday (AEDT).

Official DNA testing is still to fully confirm her identity. But the Highsmiths said they knew they had found their long-lost daughter as soon as they saw her photos, and learned details of her birthmark and birthday, Sharon Highsmith said.

Melissa revealed how she initially feared a scam when her birth father sent her a message through social media. But, after questioning the person she had always believed was her mother, the truth emerged.

“The person that raised me, I asked her, ‘Is there anything you need to tell me?’ and it was confirmed that she knew that I was baby Melissa. So that just made it real,” she said.

She said her reunion with her birth family was simultaneously “overwhelming” and the “best feeling in the world”.

Another sister, Rebecca Del Bosque, said after the reunion that the Highsmith family “grew by one” and “couldn’t be happier”.

Nightmare over for Highsmith family

The decades of family drama began when Ms Highsmith was abducted by a babysitter hired by Ms Apantenco, who was a single mother at the time.

She had advertised in the local newspaper for someone to care for her young daughter while she worked.

Ms Apantenco never met the babysitter – her roommate instead handed over the toddler while she was at work. The babysitter never returned with her little girl, sparking a heart-breaking search spanning more than five decades.

Ms Apantenco endured years of guilt over Melissa’s disappearance, and even faced accusations she had killed her. At the weekend, Sharon Highsmith defended her mother.

“My mom did the best she could with the limited resources she had – she couldn’t risk getting fired, so she trusted the person who said they’d care for her child,” she told The Guardian.

“I’m grateful … we have vindication for my mom.”

Ms Apantenco told local news outlet WFAA she was “elated” to find the daughter she thought she’d never see again. Mr Highsmith said he started crying when he heard his missing daughter had been found at last.

No information has been released about Ms Highsmith’s kidnapper, or whether she will face any charges.

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