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.

Peter Morgan/AP/File
This file photo shows where authorities dug up the basement of a building in the SoHo neighborhood of New York last month in connection with the disappearance 33 years ago of 6-year-old Etan Patz. Police on Thursday took a suspect, Pedro Hernandez, into custody.

New York police say a man has implicated himself in the abduction and killing of Etan Patz, a toothy, tow-headed 6 year old who disappeared on May 25, 1979 – the most solid lead so far in solving a case that shocked a nation and contributed to changing the American childhood experience.

Etan's abduction came to symbolize growing fears about “stranger-danger” and helped spark a missing children’s movement that began putting photos on milk cartons and has professed to saving hundreds of children’s lives. 

But fears stoked by the Patz abduction and other similar cases, fueled by the rise of cable TV, also shadowed childhood with parental fears that even dwinding crime statistics and low stranger-abduction rates could not assuage.

“When Etan was first missing, the working assumption on the part of the parents was that some forlorn woman had seen this angelic child at a bus stop and had taken him to raise as her own,” says Lenore Skenazy, a New York writer who advocates against fear-based parenting. “It wasn’t until later, when police said that sometimes it’s actually not a woman who captures a child, but a man who intends to … murder them. When that hit the airwaves, it was a match that sparked a fire that’s been raging ever since.”

On Thursday, New York police took into custody Pedro Hernandez of Maple Shade, N.J., expressing “cautious optimism” that his story – that he strangled Etan and put him a box to dispose of the body – is true. At the same time, police say, not all facets of Mr. Hernandez's story add up. He has not yet been charged with any crime, though charges could come as early as today.

The news came one day before the anniversary of the abduction, a time when police in the past have had to deal with large numbers of false leads and hoaxes. But authorities have apparently had their eye on Hernandez since reopening the Patz case in 2010, partly because Hernandez had apparently made numerous admissions to friends and a spiritual adviser implicating himself in the death of a boy. Hernandez, at the time of the disappearance, was 18 and working in a shop near the Patz family apartment in SoHo.

Last month, police evacuated and searched the basement of a nearby building after a cadaver dog raised an alarm. Nothing of value was discovered.

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.

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.’ ” 

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