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April 23, 2015 11:35 am

How Parents Can Respond to Cases of Missing Children

avatar by Eli Verschleiser

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Times Square New York. Photo: Terabass.

Regardless of whether a jury convicts Pedro Hernandez in the May 1979 killing of Etan Patz, the mystery of this case, which has stirred New York City for decades, won’t go away.

Etan, eight at the time, disappeared while walking from his Lower Manhattan home to a bus stop two blocks away. He is believed to have stopped in a store to buy a soda along the way. He became the nation’s best known missing child, launching legislative efforts and milk-carton awareness campaigns. Hernandez, then 18, worked at a nearby bodega.

With no body and no crime scene, all the evidence is circumstantial, and Hernandez’s low IQ and long history of mental illness leave open the possibility that his confession and supposed recollections of the murder are at odds with reality. Even if the jury sees no reasonable doubt that he’s guilty, many of us will forever wonder if a dangerous child-killer may still walk the streets.

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Another disturbing question posed by this case is how the police in a major metropolitan city, with some of the world’s best detectives, could have found no clues – no leads that developed into a conviction – for so long.

Another suspect, Jose Antonio Ramos, was investigated for the crime and even sued in civil court but was never prosecuted. Furthermore, there was no shortage of publicity about Patz’s disappearance. Did no one in this crowded metropolis see anything that could have helped the investigation? If Hernandez is the killer, why were his confessions over the years to family members, a prayer group, and even the police ignored?

Could today’s better forensic science, ubiquitous security, and cell phone cameras – or the “see something say something” campaign – have led to a quicker arrest?

Etan’s parents, Stanley and Julie, may God have mercy on them, have suffered under the cloud of these and many other questions for nearly 36 years, while wondering what their now 44-year-old son would have been like. And despite being declared legally dead in 2001, is it possible that Etan remains alive, held against his will, perhaps brainwashed, or sent to another country? If so, would he even remember his former life?

Underpinning it all is the heaviest and most painful question: What if Etan had never been allowed to walk alone to the bus that morning?

Every day we as parents struggle with seemingly small, logistical decisions we know could have much bigger implications – decisions about trusting kids, or trusting others with our kids. The Patz case, and others like it – more recently the Leiby Kletzky disappearance and murder in Borough Park in 2011 – loom over us as we make these decisions, forcing us to balance the real danger of abusers and kidnappers against the potential harm of being overprotective “helicopter parents.” Time doesn’t erase our memory or ease our angst.

“When people think about crimes such as Etan Patz or Adam Walsh or Jaycee Dugard, it’s as if they happened yesterday,” says Lenore Skenazy, author Free Range Kids and a critic of helicopter parenting.

“It is not making kids any safer to think that way.  The big challenge when these things happen is to avoid what I call worst-first thinking.”

We’ve passed laws, named for famous victims, across the country to protect kids, and developed Amber Alerts and even smartphone apps to quickly respond when kids go missing. The ability to call or track cell phones also make us breathe a bit easier. The number of missing persons under age 18 reported to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center has shrunk from 558,493 in 2009 to 466,949 last year, though that figure was up from 2013’s 462,567.

Kidnappings are statistically rare per capita and those ending in murder rarer still, averaging about 100 per year, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Kidnapping by strangers amounts to less than a quarter of all such cases, with nearly half committed by family members and the remainder by acquaintances, according to the FBI.

Skenazy argues that the only way to truly protect kids is through empowerment. “You can’t always prepare the path for your child,” she says.  “Sometimes you have to prepare your child for the path.”

At Magenu, the organization I co-founded with my dear wife Dr. Shani Verschleiser, curriculums prepared and facilitated by experts teach school kids to recognize dangerous situations, avoid them and report anything out of the ordinary, even if the perpetrator or attempted perpetrator is a family member, friend teacher or respected community member. Because education, awareness, and a safe haven for those who come forward are more powerful tools than any app.

The painful questions of the Patz case will never go away, and future cases will force us to confront them again. The best we can do is combine our faith in God and the good people of the world – police officers and other protectors as well as bystanders on streets – with common sense skills that empower our kids to be as safe as they can be.

Eli Verschleiser is a financier, real estate developer, and investor in commercial real estate. In his Philanthropy, Mr. Verschleiser is a board member of the American Jewish Congress, Co-Founder of Magenu.org, & President of OurPlace, a non-profit organization that provides support, shelter, and counseling for troubled Jewish youth. Mr. Verschleiser is a frequent commentator on political and social services matters.

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