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Patz case sparked missing-child awareness

Etan Patz, who went missing May 25, 1979,

Etan Patz, who went missing May 25, 1979, near his home in New York's SoHo neighborhood, appears in this undated file photo. Credit: AP

The Etan Patz abduction 33 years ago helped spark a movement that put missing children's faces on milk cartons and, more recently, text messages to cellphones and electronic messages on highway billboards.

That effort, law enforcement experts said, has resulted in missing-children cases being treated with more urgency and tenacity nowadays.

Currently, 97 percent of all missing kids are found, said Bob Lowery, executive director of the missing-children section of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and one in six is found as a result of photo distribution. In 1983, the recovery rate for missing children was 63 percent, Lowery said.

"We still had tragedies, but the majority of the children are returned safe and sound," Lowery said.

Last week, Pedro Hernandez, 51, of Maple Shade, N.J., was arrested and charged in the death of Patz, whose body has yet to be found.

"This case has not been forgotten," said Lowery.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children was created by Congress in 1984, and officially designated that year by President Ronald Reagan as the nation's clearinghouse for information on missing children.

It was a photo of 6-year-old Etan Patz that was one of the first to be posted on milk cartons as a method for increasing public awareness about missing children.

Today, it is evident that putting cases like Patz's in front of the public in a way that made the problem hard to avoid was a first step on a journey to electronic highway billboards announcing Amber Alerts, and text messages to cellphones about child abduction investigations, said Lowery and Gerald W. Lynch, former president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

"It was . . . progeny of a lot of good thinking among people who were worried about their children," Lynch said.

Lynch was chairman of the New York City Police Foundation when the nonprofit group started the Missing Children Campaign in 1985, which featured Patz's image on milk cartons in New York.

He and others were skeptical of the idea.

"I thought it was a gimmick," Lynch said. "It really came out of nowhere."

The story of Patz being abducted while walking to a school bus stop in SoHo on May 25, 1979, is part of the National Center's narrative. The case is listed as one of the early missing-child cases that prompted activists to begin publishing photos of the missing to increase awareness and to press the federal government to create a missing-children database.

"It was a different time," Lowery said. "The issue really wasn't in the public consciousness as it is now."

The problem wasn't fully ingrained in the collective mind of law enforcement officials either.

When Patz went missing, it was common for police not to take a missing-person report for anywhere from one to three days after the child disappeared, according to the National Center.

The National Child Assistance Act of 1990 changed that. The federal law required that federal, state and local law enforcement immediately enter information about a person younger than 18 into the National Crime Information Center database. The law also made clear that police abolish waiting periods before taking missing person or unidentified child reports.

It was easier to get information into a national database about a stolen car or missing firearm than a missing child before the Patz case, Lowery said.

"Etan's case really raised the public awareness on missing and victimized children," he said. "It was a combination of some frustration and outrage, and some vulnerability, because an incident like this makes a community uncomfortable."

Lynch, 75, retired and living in Southampton, said the Patz abduction was a mystery that left the city "awash in guilt and fear" of children being molested and fueled a notion that New York City was "going down the tubes."

"It was a real scary time," Lynch recalled.

"It wasn't just a kidnapping case," Lynch said. "It took on mythic proportions."

Russ Harten is a professor of forensic science at LIU Post in Brookville, but in the mid-1980s, he was an NYPD patrolman who recalled the 2 a.m. canvassing of midtown neighborhoods after receiving missing-child reports.

"I'm sure that type of procedure was in direct relation to the Etan Patz case," Harten said. "You can't do anything to a child in America where we're not going to overturn every stone."


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