The missing-child panic began with Etan Patz. Plenty of kids had gone missing before, but Etan’s case seemed specially designed to provoke a mass hysteria. In 1979, the six-year-old boy’s mother arranged for him to walk to the school bus stop on his own. She watched him depart from her Manhattan fire escape. Another mother was waiting two blocks away in an apartment overlooking the bus stop site, but Etan never arrived.
The tragedy was and remains impossible to comprehend. His first time walking to the bus stop? Two blocks away? With adults looking out for him? It meant something. There were powerful forces capable of unfathomable violence — forces previously undetected, possibly swiftly advancing, perhaps already everywhere — from which nobody was safe.
High-quality photographs of Etan taken by his father, a professional photographer, blanketed the city and the national news media for months, which stretched into years. Fear began to mount, and eventually all were afraid. Children’s faces, including but hardly limited to Etan’s, began appearing on milk cartons. In 1982, CBS Evening News informed rapt and terrified adults that up to fifty thousand American children were being kidnapped by strangers every year.
“These figures were wildly inflated, as journalists, social scientists, and government officials had made clear by the mid-1980s,” writes Paul Renfro in his new book Stranger Danger: Family Values, Childhood, and the American Carceral State. But it didn’t matter. Panic had clenched the nation’s psyche, and its grip was tightening.
Renfro situates the response to Etan Patz’s disappearance in the context of 1970s New York. As “deindustrialization battered New York City with an enduring intensity” and “some two million white New Yorkers bolted for the suburbs,” the city was left in crisis. The social chaos that resulted — which was exaggerated, as Renfro points out, but did include rising crime — demanded a response of some kind. That response could have been an expanded welfare state. Instead, it was austerity and a bulked-up policing and carceral apparatus.
It’s no coincidence that the nation’s missing child or “stranger danger” panic originated in a city that much of the nation had already come to regard as the epicenter of dangerous strangers — and a city that had already begun to lay the groundwork to respond with more police and prisons. The link between mass incarceration and violence against children was there from the beginning of the stranger danger panic, foreshadowing what would transpire in the decades to come.