February 26, 2021

Etan Patz Disappearance — the Missing Kids on Milk Cartons Initiative Influenced by a Tragedy

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The shocking disappearance of a six-year-old boy, Etan Patz, led to a nationwide campaign that displayed the photos of missing children on milk cartons.

In 1984, the Missing Children Milk Carton Program was launched as a way of alerting as many people as possible to be on the lookout for the many children that were going missing daily across the United States.

It was Etan Patz's story that raised awareness with the public and authorities that there was a need for a database and a nationwide system to help keep track of children and coordinate their search.

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MISSING

It all started on May 25, 1979, when a six-year-old Etan Patz convinced his harried mother Julie to let him walk the two blocks to the school bus stop on his own. Julie saw Etan walk off proudly with his backpack and his baseball cap and $1 for a soda.

Julie Patz would never see her son again. Etan never made it to school, but his teacher didn't report him absent. The fact that Etan was missing was only discovered at the end of the day when he didn't come home.

President Ronald Reagan declared the day of Etan's disappearance, May 25, National Missing Children's Day.

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THE SEARCH FOR ETAN PATZ

Etan's mother immediately called the police, and an intensive search involving over 100 officers began. Etan's father, Stanley, a professional photographer, gave the police several photos he'd taken of his son to aid the search.

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Posters with Etan's portrait were printed and plastered all over Manhattan, to no avail. Jose Antonio Ramos, a convicted child molester who had been friendly with Etan's babysitter, was considered a suspect but was never prosecuted.

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A DAY FOR ETAN PATZ

Julie and Stanley's anguished search for their son caught the public's imagination, and the photos of Etan taken by his father were projected on the giant screens on Time Square. Etan's story raised awareness of the fate of so many other missing children.

In 1983, President Ronald Reagan declared the day of Etan's disappearance, May 25, National Missing Children's Day. Etan's face was the first displayed on a milk carton in an initiative to garner the public's help in identifying and finding missing children.

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JUSTICE FOR ETAN PATZ

Nearly 38 years after Etan's disappearance, Jose Lopez was convicted of the murder and kidnapping of the six-year-old and condemned to 25 years to life. The man was caught after the Manhattan District Attorney reopened the case in 2010 and relaunched the investigation.

Lopez had confessed his responsibility for the murder in his church group but pleaded not guilty to the charges. Lopez told his church group that he had been 18 years old and working in a local store at the time he kidnapped Etan.

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Lopez had seen Etan on his way to the bus and lured him into the bodega. He revealed that he had killed Etan on the same day and disposed of his body in the trash. Etan's remains were never found.

As for Lopez, he is serving out his 25 years and will be eligible for parole in 2042. Etan's parents, who had been living in the same house since their son's disappearance, finally moved, 40 years after their little boy went missing.

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THE END OF THE MILK CARTON CAMPAIGN

Even though the milk carton campaign raised awareness of the plight of the thousands of children who disappeared in the US every year, pediatricians and child psychologists opined that the sight of missing children on milk cartons was harmful to other kids.

Children became fearful and anxious at the sight of the victims on the cartons. The same cartons were ever-present along with their cookies and breakfast cereal and raised their fears that they were in constant danger of being stolen from their families. 

Today, the Internet has taken the place of milk cartons, and posts of the faces of missing children are shared on social media. Etan Platz has not been forgotten, and his death changed the way missing children were viewed and helped bring many of them home.

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