Etan Patz case: Are today's kids less likely to be nabbed by a stranger?
The abduction of Etan Patz in 1979 became part of a mosaic of parental fear that dramatically changed the American childhood experience. But it also saved lives, data suggest.
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Together with the Adam Walsh murder and a string of child killings in Atlanta in the early 1980s, the Patz case fueled the creation in 1984 of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), which runs a tip line that helps police track abducted children. President Ronald Reagan named May 25, the anniversary of Patz's disappearance, National Missing Children's Day.Skip to next paragraph
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The public effort to draw attention to stranger abductions has had an impact, experts say. The missing children’s center has helped police track down hundreds of thousands of children since its inception, the vast majority of them taken by parents or family members. Out of more than 800,000 reported abductions a year, 115 children are taken by strangers for the purpose of ransom, sexual abuse, or murder.
The abduction and killing of 9-year-old Amber Hagerman in Arlington, Texas in 1996 led to the creation of the AMBER Alert system, which broadcasts alarms about abducted children on TVs and highway signs – a system that the federal government says has helped save 554 children from harm.
Moreover, whether because of heightened parental vigilance or other societal factors, children are far less likely to become victims of violent crime today than 20 years ago. In 2009, the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics counted 12 crimes per 1,000 juveniles, compared with 44 per 1,000 juveniles in 1993, a downward trend commensurate with violent crime rates for other age groups.
Despite these data, the echo of Etan's disappearance lingers, says Ms. Skenazy, author of "Free Range Kids."
The potential solving of the Patz case coincides with what she and others see as the “institutionalization of helicopter parenting” – the trend of parents constantly hovering by their kids. This, in turn, has led to far less expansive roaming ranges for children in the US and unintended knock-on effects, such as a rise in childhood-obesity rates and recent cases where parents have gotten in trouble for letting their kids ride their bikes to school.
"The Etan Patz case changed the way we view childhood and parenting,” says Ms. Skenazy, author of "Free Range Kids." "There’s this notion, because of these kinds of cases, that it’s just natural to be afraid all the time, but it is actually not natural."
The case “ended an era of innocence in this country,” Ernie Allen, director of the NCMEC, told CNN.
Even so, the center has also worked to curb parental paranoia while focusing on helping parents raise well-adjusted kids who can confidently gauge situations involving both friends and strangers.
In "Free Range Kids," Mr. Allen is quoted as saying, “We have been trying to debunk the myth of ‘stranger danger.’ ”