How the Etan Patz case changed America on missing children

Etan Patz flyer
Etan Patz, a six-year-old New York City boy, vanished while walking to the bus stop in his SoHo neighborhood on May 25, 1979. The investigation into the case spanned decades and continents. In 2001, a judge declared the boy legally dead. Jose Antonio Ramos, a convicted child sexual abuser and friend of Patz's one-time babysitter, was declared responsible for Patz's death in a New York civil case, but in May 2012, a 51-year-old man named Pedro Hernandez confessed to choking Patz to death on the day he disappeared. Hernandez, who worked at a convenience store near Patz's home, has a history of mental illness. He was arrested but police have not cited any evidence against him other than his confession.
AP Photo/Courtesy NYPD/Getty Images

(CBS News) Etan Patz' picture both shocked and changed America. Before Patz went missing, most parents thought their children were safe in the neighborhood -- and most police couldn't be bothered to quickly search for a lost child.

Patz -- among the first missing child pictured on a milk carton -- was the country's wake-up call.

"It really shone a light on the fact that our response to missing child cases in this country was woefully inadequate," said Ernie Allen, the country's leading authority on missing children.

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Allen said the 1979 Patz case -- followed by the 1981 murder of 6-year-old Adam Walsh in Florida -- led the country, Congress and President Ronald Reagan to take action.

Missing children began to be entered into the FBI crime data base. And Allen's agency, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, was created to help police.

The Patz case changed law enforcement, too. "Etan was a catalyst for the creation of a coordinated national system," Allen said, "so that today when a child disappears, police take an immediate report, there is immediate distribution of a child's photo and information."

That mindset change -- from "wait-and-see" to urgent response -- helped lead to the Amber Alert system on the nation's billboards. It led to companies like Wal-Mart posting pictures of missing children.

Today, out of 800,000 children reported missing, 99 percent come home safely -- up from 62 percent in 1990. Of the 115 children abducted by strangers last year, 57 percent came home.

"Our commitment to these families is that no case is ever closed until we either find the child or we learn with certainty what happened," said Allen.

That explains why dozens of NYPD and FBI agents are still on the case of Etan Patz. It's the kind of response that didn't happen and could not have happened on the day he went missing. But in the 33 years since that day, thousands of children have been saved because of him.

  • Wyatt Andrews
    Wyatt Andrews

    Wyatt Andrews is a CBS News National Correspondent based in Washington D.C. He is responsible for tracking trends in politics, health care, energy, the environment and foreign affairs.