Dramatic progress on missing kids
Their faces are so oddly familiar. Etan Patz. Adam Walsh. Megan Kanka. Jacob Wetterling. Amber Hagerman. Jimmy Ryce. Johnny Gosch.
Their stories, however, are the kind you want to forget. These children were all kidnapped. Some were gruesomely murdered. Some are still missing.
Sex predators still stalk the land, but they can no longer do so with total impunity.
“[T]he progress of the past 25 years has been extraordinary,” said Ernie Allen, president and chief executive of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), which marked its 25th anniversary June 13.
Law enforcement is better prepared and responds more swiftly and effectively, he said. “There’s better law, better technology. Moms and dads are more alert and aware; kids are smarter and more street-smart and savvy about the risks they face.
“There’s a bunch more that needs to be done, but I think that the progress is really encouraging,” said Mr. Allen, noting that NCMEC’s missing-children recovery rate has grown from 62 percent in 1990 to 97 percent in 2008.
The cultural transformation regarding missing children has been dramatic.
For instance, in 1981, after 6year-old Adam Walsh vanished from a Sears store, his parents, John and Reve Walsh, quickly realized police departments didn’t talk to each other on missing-children cases.
Moreover, “the Walsh family discovered that it was virtually impossible to have missing-child information entered into the FBI’s national crime computer,”
Mr. Allen said. “You could enter information about stolen cars, stolen guns, all kinds of stolen property, but not stolen children.”
Then there were the mandatory waiting periods.
Years ago, “if your child disappeared, the presumption was that, well, he just probably ran away,” Mr. Allen said. Police told parents if their child “doesn’t show up within 24, 48, 72 hours, call us back and we’ll take a report and we’ll investigate.”
“Well, we now know that in the most serious cases — abduction-homicides — in three-quarters of those cases, the child is dead within the first three hours,” he said. Waiting periods on missing-child cases were outlawed in 1990 by the federal National Child Search Assistance Act.
The NCMEC, opened by President Reagan on June 13, 1984, was designed to be a clearinghouse and nerve center for missing-children cases, and it has not ceased to expand its efforts. Once dubbed the “milk carton people” because of its novel placement of photos of missing children, such as Manhattan 6-year-old Etan Patz and Des Moines paperboy Johnny Gosch, the NCMEC now has 400 companies that help disseminate photos.
The NCMEC also has been involved in innovations such as photo age-progression, the 1800-THE-LOST hot line, a “cold case unit” to pursue old missing-children cases, and CyberTipline to take reports of suspected child sexual exploitation.
There’s more trouble ahead, Mr. Allen told me recently. There is a growing appetite for child pornography. Children are being captured and sold for sex. An estimated 100,000 registered sex offenders are free but unaccounted for.
Meanwhile, the nation now recognizes May 25, the day Etan disappeared, as National Missing Children’s Day. Stores all over America know that when a “Code Adam” is sounded, security guards lock the exits and look for a child reported missing in the store.
Communities must be notified when sex offenders move in, thanks to “Megan’s Law,” named for Megan Kanka, 7, who was raped and murdered by a convicted pedophile. All states must have sex-offender registries, thanks to a 1994 federal law named for Jacob Wetterling, an 11-year-old who was kidnapped on a Minnesota road and hasn’t been seen since.
Jimmy Ryce, a 9-year-old Florida boy who was abducted, raped and shot when he tried to escape his attacker, is memorialized with a NCMEC law-enforcement training center.
And around America, everyone knows when they see an “Amber Alert,” a child has been kidnapped. Sadly, the monster who captured and killed Amber Hagerman, the 9-year-old Texas girl who inspired the emergency response, is still unidentified.
Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwetzstein@washington times.com.