Six days after they left for a court-sanctioned weekend visit with their birth mother, 17-month-old Apex twins have yet to be reunited with their adoptive parents.
The FBI is assisting Durham police in the effort to find Tyler Lee and Holly Ann Needham, thought to be with their biological mother, Allison Lee Quets. The three might have headed toward Kentucky, where Quets' ailing mother lives in Louisville, or Quets' former home state of Florida.
The twins' adoptive parents contacted Durham police when Quets failed to return the children, but an alert wasn't issued for more than 24 hours. No Amber Alert went out.
An Amber Alert is part of a high-profile national system designed to find children soon after they are abducted. It is used when children are thought to be in imminent danger and is issued to other law enforcement agencies and distributed to local media.
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The adoptive mother, Denise Needham of Apex, said Wednesday that she and her husband, Kevin, had been advised by authorities not to talk publicly about their ordeal.
Quets, 49, who moved from Orlando, Fla., to Durham this year, was trying to regain custody by appealing the adoption, said her sister, Gail. Allison Quets had been sick during her pregnancy and worried about her ability to care for the twins. A mutual friend put the Needhams in contact with Quets, her sister said.
Denise Needham declined to talk Tuesday about the adoption details.
Quets, who was living in an apartment near The Streets at Southpoint shopping center in Durham, had monthly visitation rights, according to public records. She was scheduled to drop the twins off at the mall early Sunday evening but never showed up, prompting the Needhams to call Durham police at 6:24 p.m. about what the police were calling a "child custody dispute."
An off-duty police officer went to Quets' apartment twice that evening but could not find her or the twins. Because the Needhams did not have court documents outlining the custody arrangements, Durham police say, they did not take further action that night.
A police spokeswoman did not say why the department didn't seek an Amber Alert. She referred questions to the FBI.
FBI spokesman Tim Stutheit said the federal agency was assisting Durham police but declined to comment further.
The next day, on Christmas, the Needhams called Apex police at 2:35 p.m. to report the twins as missing, said Apex Police Chief Jack Lewis. Officer Stacy Hale called law enforcement agencies in Kentucky and Florida, as well as his counterparts in Durham, to try to find the children.
The police department is frequently called about visitation issues, which are routine in divorce cases and don't always go smoothly, Lewis said. Within a few hours, he added, it appeared to Hale that the twins' disappearance wasn't ordinary.
At 6:49 p.m. Monday, Apex police reported Tyler Lee and Holly Ann Needham as missing to the National Crime Information Center, a national database. Bulletins went out to emergency communication centers up and down the East Coast, asking police to be on the lookout for Quets, the white Plymouth van she could be driving and the blonde, blue-eyed twins, Lewis said.
The bulletins are not typically as high a priority as Amber Alerts, but they still reach a number of police agencies.
An Amber Alert wouldn't have been appropriate, Lewis said, because the children had been in Quets' care for several days and did not appear to be in imminent or serious danger.
The Apex police turned the case back over to Durham police.
At 8:12 p.m. Monday, shortly after Apex police initiated the East Coast missing persons alert, Denise Needham called the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. The center coordinates the national Amber Alert system, although an alert was not issued.
The national organization never contacted its North Carolina counterpart, though.
"I would have liked to see it handled in a more timely fashion," said Lois Hogan, the North Carolina center's supervisor.
Hogan said she heard from a Durham police detective at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday. She urged Durham police to contact local media about the missing children, and the police agency sent out a news release at 7:04 p.m. Tuesday.
Despite the FBI's involvement, it was unclear whether word of the missing children had reached all who could help.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the Louisville Police Department had not been contacted, said Alicia Smiley, a department spokeswoman. Quets' mother is seriously ill in a Louisville nursing home, and Quets had mentioned to her sister that she wanted her mother to see the children before the older woman died, Quets' sister said.
In Florida, Highway Patrol Sgt. Jorge Delahoz said Wednesday that his agency knew about the Quets case. He offered a description of the two cars Quets owns -- a silver Acura and a white Plymouth van -- but said he could not release any other information.
Details of the adoption and Quets' appeal were not publicly available Wednesday. In Florida, adoption cases are typically sealed.
Mothers' typical role
Birth mothers who give up their babies for adoption often have some level of involvement in a child's life, said Joe Kroll, executive director of the Minnesota-based North American Council on Adoptable Children.
Usually, that means an annual letter to and from the child or the child's adoptive parents, perhaps with photos. On rare occasions, the birth mother will be a more regular presence in the child's life, attending birthday parties or other significant events, Kroll said.
But it would be "highly unusual" for a birth mother who is appealing an adoption to have regular, unmonitored visitation, Kroll said.
"Those visitations, in a contested adoption, should be supervised," he said.
While the abduction of a child by the birth mother is certainly traumatic for the adoptive parents, it's "rare, rare, rare, rare, rare," Kroll said. "It's prevalent ... in divorce situations."
Sharon Thompson, an adoption attorney in Durham, said Wednesday she was surprised that the birth mother had visitation rights. "Normally, it's usually a total cutoff of the birth parent's rights," she said.
But if the adoption is being appealed, a judge might have decided to allow visitation so the birth mother remains in the children's lives until the matter is settled, she added.
(News researcher Denise Jones contributed to this report.)