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.
They never knew his name or saw that angelic-looking face. But their parents would never forget it.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
"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.