(NewsNation) — For the first time in more than 50 years, the Highsmiths are together again.
In 1971, at just 22 months old, Melissa Highsmith was abducted from her Fort Worth, Texas, home. She was under the care of a babysitter the family had never met — a woman who had answered an ad in the paper. Melissa’s mother asked her roommate at the time to give Melissa to the babysitter, and the toddler was never seen again.
“I’m very angry about the way she was kidnapped, and the kidnapper taking 51 years of my joy away from me,” Jeffrie Highsmith, Melissa’s father, said.
A five-decades-long search for Melissa began, and her photo was plastered everywhere in an attempt to get the word out.
Melissa’s story resurfaced this fall when an anonymous tipster said a woman she spotted in South Carolina resembled the age-progression photo released by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
It wasn’t Melissa, but the tip did encourage her dad to use a DNA kit from the company 23andMe. His DNA came up as a close match with Melissa’s kids.
“And it came back as her children, my grandchildren … and I just started weeping and crying,” Jeffrie said. “My daughters were crying, ‘She’s alive, she’s alive!’”
Jeffrie messaged Melissa on Facebook, telling her he had been looking for her for 51 years. Melissa, who had been renamed Melanie by her abductor, had lived most of her life just 10 minutes down the road from where she’d been taken.
“I could have probably seen my picture at the DPS and I wouldn’t have even taken a second glance, you know?” she said.
The family and law enforcement are now figuring out how to move forward. The alleged abductor has not yet been arrested or charged.
Melissa Highsmith said she “feels like Cinderella” after being reunited with her family, and they plan to spend the rest of their lives getting to know one another. Melissa also said she intends to use “Melissa” as her name, as Melanie no longer feels true to her. She’s planning to remarry in the spring, too, so her dad can walk her down the aisle.
“They never gave up hope,” Melissa said. “You know, I didn’t think anybody was there looking for me, but they never gave up hope.”
“For me it’s a lifelong dream come true,” Jeff Highsmith, Melissa’s brother, said. “If I could ask God for anything else, I wouldn’t need to. He’s already given me everything I ever wanted.”