A lead in the 33-year-old disappearance of Etan Patz has awakened past nightmares for parents who were alive then and is a reminder to all parents to be vigilant. (See trial update below.)

Etan’s abduction changed how a nation viewed—and protected—its children. Thirty plus years ago the majority of children walked themselves to and waited for the school bus without parental supervision.

All that changed after 6-year-old Etan Patz vanished on his way to the bus stop in 1979. The unsolved case lead to a nationwide search, the appearance of missing children on milk cartons, and media blitzes when a child disappears. After a rash of abductions and murders around the same time including the well-publicized Adam Walsh case, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children came into being and became an official government agency in 1984.  For a full history of the Center’s progress click on Timeline at their website.

According to the Department of Justice, the number of children abducted by non-family members is small in comparison to the almost 800,000 children reported missing each year. However, if one child is missing and he or she is yours, the number is too high.

Ice Cream Isn’t Always Good

 Barbara Treaster
Photo: Barbara Treaster

Eight years before Etan disappeared, a man in a parked car was spotted watching children in the schoolyard of my stepchildren’s school. The incident prompted my writing and disseminating a booklet for elementary school children titled “Ice Cream Isn’t Always Good.” It photographically illustrates a young girl being lured by the offer of ice cream into a man’s car and his home. She escapes, but the lessons learned by young readers offer a layer of protection against would-be abductors.

A number of years later in an effort to keep awareness high and to educate elementary school children, “Ice Cream Isn’t Always Good” became the first chapter in the book, Never Say Yes to a Stranger. The stories present ten likely situations a child might be in and the information children need to protect themselves. It demonstrates what to expect, how to spot trouble, and how to react quickly.  For example, get permission from a parent before taking anything offered by someone you don’t know; tricks people may use to win you over; trust your instincts…

Yes, childhood is supposed to be a period of innocence, but as long as people who prey on children exist, parents must be watchful. If nothing else, the campaign that I mounted in 1971 to inform children is as important today as it was then. Reopening the public to the Etan Patz case hopefully will caution parents to dangers sadly still present and mobilize them to educate their children calmly.

May 25th is National Missing Children's Day, so named by Ronald Regan during his presidency. It is the day that Etan Patz disappeared. The day is also a reminder to parents to arm children with the knowledge they need. Awareness is the one constant in protecting all children against being exploited or abducted.

Update: As of March, 2015, a man is on trial for Etan Patz’s murder.

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