Etan Patz and the history of missing kids on milk cartons

Claudine Zap
Claudine Zap
The Upshot

In today's social-media world, it's hard to imagine: But in 1979, there was no coordinated effort of state or national law enforcement when a child went missing. Etan Patz, who disappeared 33 years ago on May 25, changed the way searches were conducted ever after.

The 6-year-old made national headlines when he disappeared on his way to the school bus, a two-block walk in New York City's Soho neighborhood. Patz's father, a professional photographer, made copies of Etan's picture and distributed them far and wide, raising the profile of the missing-person case.

In 1983, Ronald Reagan declared May 25, the day Etan Patz disappeared, as National Missing Children's Day. But in the 1980s, many kids spent their mornings slurping their cereal while staring at the faces of missing kids on the sides of milk cartons. Etan Patz was in the first group of photos sent out by the National Child Safety Council. The organization got the idea from a local dairy, Anderson Erickson, which had first published a photo of a missing Iowa child on its milk cartons.

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That idea, said Gaylord Walker, vice president and board member of the National Child Safety Council (NCSC), was great, but not effective, since "90 times out of 100, the child is going to be removed from the area where they were abducted." He, along with NCSC founder H.R. Wilkinson and researcher Barbara Huggett, hammered out a deal with the five companies that manufacture milk cartons in the U.S. to supply them with the pictures of missing kids that the dairies had the options to use.

In December 1984, the first wave of 55 pictures went out. Etan Patz's picture was in that first group. Walker remembered, "It got off the ground in the month. I've never seen people so willing to help." The dairies gave up valuable advertising space for the public service announcements. Walker added that although the campaign helped to recover some children, more importantly, "It definitely raised awareness about the program."

[Related: How Etan's disappearance changed a generation]

By 1985, 700 dairies out of 1,800 around the country participated. These days, photos of missing children can be found in USA Today, on Walmart bulletin boards and on TruTV's "In Session"; features of missing children are on every newscast, every day on WABC-TV in New York, and the Lexis Nexis database.

While statistics of missing and recovered children are difficult to come by, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children estimates that some 800,000 children go missing every year. That breaks down to 2,185 children reported missing each day.

The organization's website asserts that the pictures of the missing do make a difference: These posters reach millions and prompt individuals across the country to call NCMEC's missing children's hotline and provide vital leads and information, many of which lead to the recovery of missing children."