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The Face That Changed The Search For Missing Kids

Etan Patz's disappearance haunted his family for decades. The arrest Thursday of a man who reportedly confessed to killing the 6-year-old back in 1979 may finally end their uncertainty.

There's no doubt, though, about the impact his abduction had nationally: It changed the way society and the legal system respond to missing children.

Before Etan vanished, missing kids weren't pictured on milk cartons. His case, along with others including the abduction and murder of Adam Walsh two years later, also led to hundreds of laws at the federal, state and local levels.

Actions that are taken for granted today — including Amber Alerts and coordination between law enforcement agencies from different jurisdictions — didn't exist 30 years ago.

"America has fundamentally changed the way it searches for missing children," says Ernie Allen, president and co-founder of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "Much of the legacy of Etan Patz is that more children come home safely today than at any time in American history."

More Rapid Response

In the 1970s, virtually every police department in the country required parents to wait for a certain period of time — 24, 48 or 72 hours — before they could even file a missing-persons report.

Not anymore. Today, law enforcement agencies are not only able but expected — and often required by statute — to respond much faster.

"Those first few hours are critical," says Patty Wetterling, whose son Jacob was kidnapped at age 11 in 1989 in St. Joseph, Minn. "Washington state put out a homicide study that told us, of all the children who are kidnapped and murdered, most are killed within the first three hours."

Today, police generally have to take a missing-persons report immediately, even from people outside their jurisdiction, and are required to send the information within two hours to the FBI's National Crime Information Center.

In Etan's time, "law enforcement agencies had limited ability to communicate with each other," says Michael Tansey, assistant head of the New Jersey State Police missing-persons unit.

In the Patz case, he adds, "they literally couldn't have communicated outside the city of New York, beyond the media."

No More Faxes

Tansey's unit is a rarity: a specific division of the state police that is required by statute. The unit decides when to issue Amber Alerts, in which law enforcement agencies turn to media outlets to quickly put out information about abducted children.

Almost no law enforcement officers were trained in how to deal with child abduction cases in the 1970s; training is common today. In New Jersey, the missing-persons unit helps local investigations with expertise, and acts as a clearinghouse for what are known as "abduction-response teams," which every county is required to have in place.

Those kinds of efforts are typical all over the country. There's now a missing-child clearinghouse in every state, says Allen, of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

The old days of faxing fliers to police departments are over.

"When we opened our doors in 1984, if a child disappeared, it would take us days to get photos out to the media and the public," he says. "Today, what used to take a day or two, we can do in 10 minutes because of the power of the Internet."

Strangers Aren't The Only Worry

While technology has certainly played a part in the changes in communication speed and breadth, particular cases have also served to draw widespread attention to the perils of child abduction.

New laws have frequently been named over the past couple of decades for the child who inspired them — Megan's Law, Jessica's Law, the Adam Walsh Act and the Jacob Wetterling Act. The Amber Alert was named after Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old Texan who was abducted and killed in 1996.

High-profile cases like those and Etan Patz's spoke to the fears of millions of parents. The boy disappeared on the very first day he walked by himself to his school bus stop.

But the fact that much legislation has been prompted by the most heinous cases has led some observers to worry that they don't target the most pertinent problems.

More than a quarter-million children are abducted each year — the vast majority by family members. Only 58,000 are taken by non-family members, and just a third of them are strangers to the child, Allen says.

"What makes the news has a lot to do with a stranger abduction, but that is not the main way children go missing in the United States, from what we know," says Mary Leary, co-director of the Institute for Law and Public Policy at Catholic University. "We should always be careful that our public policy is based on what's really going on, rather than what's in the media."

Atypical Cases

They are horrific crimes, but only 115 cases a year nationwide involve what many parents fear the most: children who are not just kidnapped, but killed, ransomed or taken with the intent to keep.

"We're making laws based on exceptional cases, cases that are not typical, and that isn't always the best way to implement laws," says Carlos Cuevas, a professor at Northeastern University's School of Criminology and Criminal Justice.

Cuevas says more evaluation is needed to determine whether programs such as Amber Alerts are actually helping to recover children. Some laws regarding sex offenders, he maintains, have been not just ineffective but counterproductive.

Allen, the president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, harbors no such doubts. Finding abducted children requires not fancy forensics, he says, but average people paying attention and taking the time to study the faces they see through media outlets or on the bulletin boards that are up in every Wal-Mart store.

"In Minnesota, we're batting 1.000," says Wetterling, who directs the sexual violence prevention program for the Minnesota Department of Health. "Every time we issue an Amber Alert, we have a child who is home safe today."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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