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Underestimating those on the fringes

Michelle Knight never would've fled her life. Why did people assume she did?

ELIZABETH SMART, kidnapped in 2002 at the age of 14 and rescued nine months later, has said that her strong family relationships and community ties helped her heal from the horrors inflicted by her abductors.

So I feel great worry for Michelle Knight's recovery.

At 32, Knight is the eldest of the three victims abducted in Cleveland, allegedly by sociopath Ariel Castro. She seems to have few of the supports that buttress her fellow abductees, Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus.

While we've seen near-constant news footage of cheering kin and neighbors as they celebrate the return of Berry and DeJesus, Knight's tiny camp has been practically silent. Her two brothers visited her in a Cleveland hospital, but her mother, who lives in Florida, seemed unsure how to react to her daughter's rescue.

"I just wish that my daughter would reach out [to me] to let me know she's there," Barbara Knight told the Today show Wednesday. (She later traveled to Cleveland and hopefully was there for her daughter's discharge from the hospital yesterday).

"She's probably angry at the world because she thought she would never be found, but thank God somebody did," Barbara Knight added.

Lord, the cluelessness of a woman who expects her daughter, who has been to hell and back, to make the first effort at reunification. And who presumes her daughter is "angry at the world," as if she's some kind of snippy adolescent.

Michelle Knight just might be feeling heartbroken because of how little her 11-year absence seemed to impact the world.

Over the years, the families of Berry and DeJesus held so many rallies in Cleveland to publicize their hopes for a return that the girls' names were immediately recognizable to the public when police announced their rescue.

But no one blinked at the mention of Knight's name, which wasn't even on Ohio's registry of missing persons anymore. She was an adult when she vanished and was losing custody of her toddler son, so police seemed to conclude that she must have wanted to escape her life.

Which sounds awfully dismissive, until we recall that just three days before the Cleveland victims were rescued, another once-missing woman - Pennsylvania's own Brenda Heist - re-emerged in Florida after 11 years without contact with family or friends.

Her reason for voluntarily fleeing: She wanted to escape her life, which was imploding from divorce.

Heist's absence was taken seriously. A massive search was conducted and her ex-husband was even temporarily suspected of foul play. That's because Heist was a middle-class, respectable mother of two. No one expected she'd ever abandon her children, because a woman like her would never do something like that.

Except that she did.

Knight, on the other hand, was a single mom from rough circumstances when she went missing. People like her are supposed to willingly abandon their children.

Except that she didn't.

In the end, of course, none of it mattered. The Cleveland victims were rescued only because Berry seized a chance to scream for help and a neighbor was decent enough to rush in. And Heist reappeared only because she was tired of being away.

All of it should remind us that, until a missing person turns up dead or alive, we simply can't presume to know what happened to them, no matter their background.

Charlie Gallagher reminded me of this yesterday, when I called to chat with him about the Cleveland case. Gallagher is the former assistant district attorney who prosecuted Gary "House of Horrors" Heidnik, who kidnapped, raped and tortured six women in his North Philly basement.

"Of those women, only one was reported missing by her family," says Gallagher. "The rest lived on the streets. They weren't going to be missed."

And that allowed Heidnik to operate with confidence that no one would come looking for the poor souls he terrorized.

Thank God the Cleveland victims did not require family and public support in order to escape. But they will need it in spades to recover from the monstrous acts Castro inflicted upon them.

Thankfully, Berry and DeJesus appear to have that emotional support.

My hope is that Michelle Knight has it, too, so she can build a life so filled with love and connection that no one would ever again presume that she would flee it.

Phone: 215-854-2217

On Twitter: @RonniePhilly