Etan Patz’s disappearance in 1979 drastically changed parenting practices in the United States — and its legacy is still with us.
The story of the 6-year-old boy’s death re-emerged in national media during the trial of Pedro Hernandez, a former stock clerk, now 54, who confessed in 2012 to choking the child to death and dumping his body a few blocks away.
On Friday, a Manhattan jury announced that it could not reach a verdict; one juror was unconvinced that Hernandez’s confession could be trusted, given his mental health history, and the judge declared a mistrial.
The tragedy of Etan was the first of several — though rare — missing-child stories to dominate news cycles.
For many, it was the catalyst for the rise in "helicopter parenting." Gone were the days of letting one’s children roam carefree throughout the neighborhood until sunset.
“After this happened, nobody let their kids out of the house without watching them. It changed everything,” a New Jersey mother told Yahoo News.
The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) says an estimated 100 kidnapped children are murdered in the United States every year.
Bob Lowery, vice president of NCMEC’s missing children’s division, says their nonprofit was established in 1984 after families of abducted children lobbied Congress to do more.
“Our doors opened as a result of what happened to Etan, Adam Walsh, Johnny Gosch and other victims,” Lowery said in an interview with Yahoo News. “What happened to Etan captured that hearts of many Americans, but it also [raised] the awareness about the vulnerability of children. It’s any parent’s worst nightmare.”
Adam, 6, was abducted from a Sears department store in Florida in 1981 and his severed head was found two weeks later. The following year, Johnny, a 12-year-old paperboy, was kidnapped after leaving home to conduct his paper route in Iowa.
The FBI’s National Crime Information Center catalogued 466,949 cases of missing children for 2014.
Although the incidence of abduction is rare, the fear of a child’s abduction has fundamentally changed mainstream parenting practices across the country.
Dennis Teixeira, 62, of Staten Island, N.Y., says that the level of freedom he enjoyed as a child during the early 1960s in Brooklyn was far different from what is typical nowadays.
“When we were kids, I was out all day in the summer,” Teixeira told Yahoo News. “I went into Prospect Park and spent the whole day there. I came home at dinnertime, and I didn’t feel threatened.”
Teixeira recalled that Patz was the first child featured on the side of a milk carton, which helped spark the nationwide missing children’s movement.
“It did [make] a profound difference,” he said.
New York Times columnist Michael Wilson released an article Friday on how the case of Etan Patz changed the childhoods of boys and girls at the time, ultimately shaping the type of parents they would become.
“He was not famous when he vanished, his family not a wealthy target of kidnappers seeking ransom. And that made the case all the more haunting in its randomness,” Wilson wrote.
Most of the men and women Wilson interviewed identified themselves as helicopter parents. But some are dedicated to fighting against this trend.
Lenore Skenazy, a mother and journalist in Queens, N.Y., coined the phrase “free-range parenting,” which is generally accepted to mean the opposite of helicopter parenting.
She says that the Etan Patz case may never be solved, but that its legacy of fear can be overturned if parents consciously decide to reject thinking in terms of the worst-case scenario.
“Sometimes it feels as if this constant dread is natural. As if it’s just the way parents are ‘programmed’ to worry. But it is cultural, it is specific. We can almost pinpoint where it began,” Skenazy wrote in her blog.
The media dubbed Skenazy “America’s Worst Mom” in 2008, after she let her then-9-year-old son take the New York City subway home alone from Bloomingdale's.
The following year, Skenazy released a book called “Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children,” in which she argues for a “commonsense approach to parenting” in these “overprotective times.”