Pedro Hernandez, a convenience store clerk in the New York neighborhood at the time, has reportedly confessed to and been arrested for the killing of Etan Patz, the 6-year-old boy who disappeared as he was walking to school in 1979.
The child’s innocent face was the first featured on the side of a milk carton.
His disappearance marks a dividing line of “before” and “after” in childrearing.
Before, there was the awareness of perverts that might fondle or molest a child but this was usually “weird grandpa” at a friend’s house (or “handsy” clergy or teacher) with the corresponding warnings to steer clear.
Kids were killed. Some were backed over by cars or killed by a drunk dad who used his fists or by older kids when some sort of game got out of hand.
My memory may be messing with me but it seems that rarely the words “child” and “murder” went together in news stories.
After 911, there was the term “or the terrorists win!” about continuing to shop or show up at large-scale events. This is how terrorists really win, in the long run. Through hyper-vigilant fear that impacts quality of life.
Once children’s faces on the side of milk cartons started coming into homes, there was a real fear for our children.
And these terrorists seemed to be everywhere.
My oldest daughter had a special lock on her bedroom window and a rose bush strategically planted there. We lived in Houston, Texas, at the time, and the rumor on the playgrounds that wee, blue-eyed gals like her were being scooped up and shipped across the border to be sold on a black market for purposes too dark to even speak.
Satanic rituals involving babies and children also were thought to be part of many disappearances. These organized groups walked among us as the local PTA, or as a childcare center set up as a front to practice the dark arts. Most, if not all, of these stories turned out to be false.
As my daughter grew, there were news stories about public bathrooms not only as prime locations for molesters but as killing fields as well.
As law enforcement became more sensitive to the needs of parents (and the potential criticism after the fact by the press) it seemed molesters killed kids rather than risk being caught.
The image of a child’s bicycle senselessly spinning on the side of a road or of devastated parents on TV begging for information was as much a part of the era of my oldest daughter’s childhood as My Little Ponies.
I worried. We all did.
It was as if the streets were crawling with wolves and our little lambs were in constant danger.
Megan's Law, the Adam Walsh Act, Jessica's Law, the Jacob Wetterling Act and others each sprang up in response to a tragedy that might have been averted.
The Amber Alert, named after 9-year-old Amber Hagerman, who was abducted and killed in 1996, is one such response that has yielded results.
Those named as suspects in these alerts generally prove to be a family member who has taken the child. Or a neighbor. Or someone the child knows.