For years it’s been a staple for comedians and others, quipping about an errant husband or a mischievous friend showing up as “missing” on milk cartons.
The reference, of course, is to the displaying of missing children on milk cartons in the hope that someone would spot a child and report it to authorities, reuniting the child with family.
For parents who lost their children under mysterious circumstances, however, those jokes were far from amusing.
The idea of using milk cartons for missing child posters started in the Midwest, but became a part of American history with the disappearance in May 1979 of Etan Patz, a 6-year-old boy from New York City. The innocent face of the youngster with the dishwater blond mop of hair caught the attention of America, leading then President Ronald Reagan to declare May 25 — the day of his disappearance — as National Missing Children’s Day.
The effectiveness of the campaign, which began to ebb in the late 1980s when pediatricians said it was causing stress on youngsters they ate breakfast, was mostly in the direction of awareness. Useful tips were rarer and, in Etan’s case, he was never found and no one was ever convicted in his disappearance. His parents, who had hoped they would one day get that call that would lead them to him, finally had him legally declared dead 11 years ago.
What brought this back to the national forefront was word Friday that authorities might be on the trail of Etan, who would be 39 years old now. The idea of a happen reunion has long been shattered. Now, there is only hope that Etan’s remains can be found.
A forensic team has been hard at work in a Manhattan basement — one near the apartment where the Patzes lived — in an effort to find blood or human remains of Etan. Law enforcement officials told The Associated Press that the search, which could take five days, started after an FBI dog detected the scent of human remains.
If authorities determine that the site was the place where Etan was killed, it would, at least, give the family the answer it has wanted to know for more than three decades. We can only hope that it will also guide law enforcement to learn who perpetrated this heinous crime and, if that person is still alive, provide evidence for conviction.
And for parents who can’t imagine what the Patzes and other families who have endured the loss of their innocent children, it is a reminder and a warning — and a good reason to give that little one who can be so precocious a big hug today.