Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


Modern Parenthood

Etan Patz: His disappearance started the era of parent anxiety

Etan Patz disappeared in 1979 and so did a nation's innocence. He vanished in broad daylight in Manhattan, sparking an era of parent anxiety – Amber alerts, milk carton photos – and  sheltered American children.

By Meghan BarrAssociated Press / April 23, 2012

New York Police Department spokesman Paul Brown held an original missing poster of Etan Patz during an April 19, 2012 news conference near an apartment building, where police and FBI agents are searching a basement for clues in the boy's 1979 disappearance. Etan was one of the first missing children to appear on a milk carton. His disappearance helped launch a national movement on the issue of missing children.

ddd

Enlarge

New York

They never knew his name or saw that angelic-looking face. But their parents would never forget it.

Skip to next paragraph

Recent posts

For some, their caution was simply a result of what they read in news reports. Others, including Jim Stratton, had an immediate and very personal reason to be afraid.

"It sent a chill through everybody," said Mr. Stratton, whose son was in the same neighborhood play group as Etan Patz, the 6-year-old who never boarded his school bus on May 25, 1979. "You could not leave your child for a minute. Anywhere. It was like a dark cloud had come over the neighborhood."

Before Etan disappeared, the notion that a child could be abducted right off the street, in broad daylight, was not familiar. Children roamed their hometowns freely, unencumbered by fear. They could walk to school and the bus stop and just about anywhere they pleased all by themselves. That all changed after Etan set off for school in his favorite pilot's cap and corduroy jacket and did not return.

A new age of paranoia had grabbed hold of the national psyche. And so many years later, that sense of fear has yet to fully release its grip.

"In many ways, it was the end of an era of innocence," said Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Exploited and Missing Children. "And parents suddenly became much more protective and much more hovering over their children."

Etan was one of the first missing children whose face would appear on a milk carton. In the coming years more faces would follow, mutely appealing for help from a public that began, for the first time, to mobilize on a grand scale in its efforts to find them. Even now, after more than 30 years, we still haven't given up hope for a resolution, for answers to every parent's worst nightmare.

Last week, authorities began ripping up an old basement near Etan's SoHo loft with the aim of finding his remains, spurred on by a cadaver-sniffing dog that picked up a scent there.

"He was here the whole time for all of us," said Cass Collins, Stratton's wife. "He was always in our thoughts."

The ones who never made it home are painfully seared in the nation's collective memory. There was 6-year-old Adam Walsh, kidnapped and killed in 1981 when he wandered away from his mother at a department store in Hollywood, Fla.

There was 12-year-old paperboy Johnny Gosch, never again seen after vanishing on his newspaper route in 1982 in West Des Moines, Iowa.

There was Jacob Wetterling, abducted by a masked gunman in 1989 while riding his bicycle home from a convenience store in St. Joseph, Minn.

Permissions

Read Comments

View reader comments | Comment on this story

  • Weekly review of global news and ideas
  • Balanced, insightful and trustworthy
  • Subscribe in print or digital

Special Offer

 

Doing Good

 

What happens when ordinary people decide to pay it forward? Extraordinary change...

Endeavor Global, cofounded by Linda Rottenberg (here at the nonprofit’s headquarters in New York), helps entrepreneurs in emerging markets.

Linda Rottenberg helps people pursue dreams – and create thousands of jobs

She's chief executive of Endeavor Global, a nonprofit group that gives a leg up to budding entrepreneurs.

 
 
Become a fan! Follow us! Google+ YouTube See our feeds!