On May 25, 1972, when Etan Patz disappeared on his way to school in lower Manhattan, I was just beginning my life as a mother. My son was a year old. Etan went missing 41 years ago next week. For me and so many other parents, the tragedy ignited our worst fears.
So fresh to the vulnerability and limitations of parenthood, I watched and waited as the lost child slipped deeper and further from his parents’ reach. Years and then decades passed. Etan was 6 years old when he walked out of his apartment, and his highly publicized disappearance launched new legislation, awareness programs and milk carton movements to find lost children. But Etan would never be found. He was declared dead in 2011 and finally, last year, a man was indicted in his murder — a man who was an 18-year-old convenience store clerk at the time.
Now there is a club of parents that no one ever wants to join. Jaycee Dugard’s family and Elizabeth Smart’s parents, Polly Klaas’s dad and mom, and so many, too many others. Their cherished sons or daughters disappeared from familiar streets in their neighborhoods and were either found dead or damaged or never found. Last year a young boy disappeared off the streets of Brooklyn while walking home from school for the very first time. His dismembered body was discovered in the trash. A local storekeeper was charged.
Some of the parents have become spokespeople for child safety, a pragmatic, positive initiative in the face of overwhelming despair. They helped create Megan’s Law to identify child predators, and the Amber Alert to get the word out fast that a child is missing. But it isn’t enough.
Last week, a new, devastating story emerged: three girls kidnapped and kept in the home of a Cleveland man for more than 10 years. The details of horrific abuse trickled out. No doubt books will be written. But terrible, permanent damage has been inflicted. No one can give back to these girls the days of their lives in captivity. In a world with the ability to seek and find the Boston bombing suspects within days, where we can find our lost iPhones and our lost dogs, how can one man keep three young women hidden away from the world?