Libba Phillips

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Missing Pieces Interview

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Libba Phillips Interviewed on Sirius Catholic Channel

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Libba Phillips in Readers Digest

Libba Phillips stood on the sidewalk of one of Tampa’s seediest streets and watched a young woman in a red miniskirt saunter toward a car. She had the same mane of auburn hair as Libba’s missing sister, Ashley.

Libba Phillips turned her five-year odyssey into a road map for others.

As the young woman leaned into the open window of the old Chevy to talk to the driver, Libba moved closer and touched her shoulder.

The woman spun around. She had the face of a total stranger. “I’m sorry,” Libba said, backing away. “I thought you were someone else.” She reached into her backpack and pulled out a flyer with a color photo of her sister, lost now for two years.

Like so many of the women on the street, Ashley had suffered abuse as a child. By the time she was 15, she’d become rebellious, depressed and addicted to alcohol and crack. For years, she was in and out of counseling, and, one March day in 1998, she left a rehab center and simply vanished. The family contacted the police and tried to file a missing persons report. But Ashley, 23, was an adult, and there were no signs of foul play. Considering her history of mental illness and drug abuse, the police felt she’d disappeared of her own accord.

“I’m sure she’ll show up soon,” the officer said. “She’s probably just passed out at a friend’s house.” Hearing that, Libba began her relentless search on the streets.

Missing people with mental illness and substance abuse problems are often ignored by law enforcement, and Libba was sure other families were living through losses like hers. Three years after her sister disappeared, she left a good job in pharmaceutical sales to launch Outpost for Hope, a nonprofit organization from which she takes no pay. Its website, outpostforhope.org, helps families searching for missing loved ones. It outlines a recovery plan and describes psychiatric resources for people who have been found.

A phone call from Gwyn Robson of Maryland is typical. “Can you help me find my daughter, Marie?” Gwyn asks Libba. It’s 2003, and she shares Marie’s heartbreaking story before bursting into tears. “Outpost for Hope made flyers, provided volunteers to post them, contacted the media,” Gwyn says. “And they gave me the emotional support I desperately needed.” Almost five months after her disappearance, Marie returned home, thanks to the organization’s publicity.

On February 7, 2003—nearly five years had gone by with no word of Ashley—Libba got good news. A friend of Ashley’s had seen one of the posters and urged her to call home. Libba flew to North Carolina to find her sister emaciated, beaten and with little memory of the time she’d been lost. Today Libba Phillips and Outpost for Hope have helped some 50 families find their lost loved ones and start them on the road to recovery.

Libba helped train law enforcement and mental health professionals at last fall’s national Crisis Intervention Team conference. Every time she talks to a group, her mind flashes back to Tampa and the faces of the women on the street. Then she thinks of Ashley—safe again at home.

From Reader's Digest - December 2007

Libba Phillips in People Magazine

May 12, 2008


When Libba Phillips learned that her troubled younger sister Ashley had gone missing, she wasn't completely surprised.  Ashley had been addicted to crack and alcohol since her teens and would often disappear for days.  But "the days turned into weeks and the weeks turned into months", recalls Phillips. "And I knew something was wrong."

She never imagined, though, that the months would turn into years - five years.  Since Ashley, 23 at the time of her 1998 disappearance, was an adult and had a history of drug abuse, police refused to help look for her.  So Phillips took it upon herself, embarking on a cross-country odyssey that took her from her Sacramento home to Tampa's seedy underbelly, questioning prostitutes and coroners for signs of her sister.  "I was so fixated on where the hell is my sister", says Phillips.  "And I was so angry that no one was giving me the time of day."

As she got a crash course in the world of the lost and the homeless, she realized many other families were struggling too.  In 1999 Phillips quit her pharmaceutical sales job and launched the nonprofit Outpost for Hope (www.outpostforhope.org), which has helped at least a dozen families reunite and thousands more look for relatives with mental illness or drug problems.

"Each day someone passes a homeless woman on the corner," she says."They're not considering that that could be someone's lost loved one."Working with two other volunteers on a shoestring budget, she advises families on how to register with missing persons organizations, how to contact the FBI and to work effectively with the police.  "When I heard what she was doing, I was almost giddy because there was such a need," says Maj. Sam Cochran of the Memphis Police Department.

Gwyn Robson feared for her daughter Marie's life after the 18-year-oldwent missing from their Maryland home in 2003.  But after Phillips advisedher on how to attract media attention and to make missing posters, the teenwas found after six months.  "I wouldn't have gotten her back without Libba," says Robson.  "I was at my wits' end".   All the while, Phillips often doubted she would ever see her own sister again.

But she continued looking, clinging to precious childhood memories."We were inseparable," she says.  Armed with cigarettes and dollar bills for bribes, she and her stepfather questioned pimps and drug dealers in Tampa, handing out fliers her family had made.  One dealer told them Ashley was likely in a crack house.  

The search consumed her life, taking a toll on her nine-year marriage, which ended last year.  "I wasn't a lot of fun to be around", she says.   Then, on Feb. 7 2003, Phillips' determination paid off.  One of Ashley's acquaintances spotted her poster and urged Ashley to call home.  She was eight months pregnant and living in a rundown apartment in Charlotte, N.C.  Arriving at her sister's side, "I thought I was going to throw up" says Phillips.  Ashley was rail thin, in a state of shock with a broken eye socket.  "She was childlike", she recalls.  "I kept wanting to hug her and she would flinch."  Though Ashley didn't remember many details of her time away, Libba learned that her sister had slept on the streets at times and had been badly beaten.  "A lot of people harmed her," Libba says.  

Ashley soon moved back to Tampa to live with her parents and her baby daughter.  But the homecoming was brief.  In 2004, Ashley resumed drinking and disappeared one night in pajamas only to be found nine months later. Now 33 and the mother of two daughters, Ashley holds down a full time job selling cars and takes medication for her bipolar disorder, which was recently diagnosed.  (Her family says she is too fragile to comment.)  "We don't really discuss the past with her", says her sister Ginny McGee, 24. "But I'm sure she feels grateful to be found".

And Libba is thankful to have her Ashley back again.  "I had come to believe that my sister was dead,"says Phillips, who recently moved to South Carolina to be closer to family."And through my searching, I've come to a certain level of peace, that all of this has helped thousands of others."

By Eileen Finan

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