crimesider

Elizabeth Smart talks about missing children on the anniversary of Etan Patz's disappearance

Elizabeth Smart CBS

(CBS) - Last week, CBS's Crimesider spoke exclusively with Elizabeth Smart, perhaps the nation's most well-known kidnap victim - and survivor. Smart was just 14 when she was snatched from her bed in the middle of the night and held for nine months before being found by police on a traffic stop.

"You never know when that break in the case might come," said Smart. "What if everyone gave up on me, where would I be? Would I be alive? I don't know."

Thirty-three years ago today, Etan Patz, a 6-year-old New York City boy, vanished on the walk between his apartment and the school bus. His was the abduction heard 'round the world, with the smiling boy's face adorning flyers and milk cartons across the U.S. for years, and investigators looking as far as the Middle East for leads in a case that has a new development in the just the past few days.

New York City police commissioner Ray Kelly announced Thursday that police arrested Pedro Hernandez, who police say confessed to kidnapping and killing Patz. Hernandez is scheduled to appear in Manhattan court today.

Patz was declared officially dead in 2001, but Patz's parents, police and people around the nation who were chilled by the little boy's disappearance have always hoped for resolution in his case. A search of a basement near his Manhattan apartment last month - undertaken after new information reportedly surfaced - turned up no signs of human remains.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the mystery surrounding Patz's disappearance, his case cast a long shadow. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan designated May 25, the day Patz went missing, National Missing Children's Day.

A year later, Congress created the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, an organization that assists in finding missing children, collects data on crimes against children, and educates parents and kids on how to keep safe from predators.

At the time of the center's founding, school-age children were taught about "stranger danger," with typical safety training consisting of an annual hour-long assembly where teachers and police warned students about not getting into cars with strangers.

But now we know better. 

"Lectures aren't useful," says Gary Hayes, president of Keep Georgia Safe, a non-profit organization that offers child safety training. Instead of telling kids what to do, Hayes and other child advocates say we need train kids to kick and scream and call 911 - then reinforce that training through action, engaging their muscle memory.

And thanks to programs like radKIDS, a non-profit formed by former police officer Steve Daley in 2001, kids all over the country are now learning how to fight back and make a scene - instead of freezing - when they feel threatened.

"The focus today is on building self-esteem and self-confidence," says Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "We don't want kids frightened, we want them alert, aware and empowered."

And leading the charge is Elizabeth Smart, who at 24 is devoting herself to imbuing children with the self-confidence she didn't have on the night she was taken.

"I think every child should go through radKIDS training," Smart told CBS's Crimesider. "I want them to know that whatever they need to do to feel safe, whether it's kicking or screaming...I want them to have the confidence to do that."

Video co-produced and edited by Gregory F. McLaughlin

  • Julia Dahl

    Julia Dahl writes about crime and justice for CBSNews.com

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