33 years apart, Isabel and Etan remind us: Keep your children safe

2012-04-26T00:00:00Z 2012-05-01T20:05:02Z 33 years apart, Isabel and Etan remind us: Keep your children safeJane See White Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
April 26, 2012 12:00 am  • 

Two tragic events, 33 years apart and yet so near to heart, have me thinking over and over: Keep your children well.

New York police had just announced they were reopening the Etan Patz case when, here in Tucson, 6-year-old Isabel Celis was reported missing.

I covered Etan's story when I was a national writer for The Associated Press based in New York City.

A sunny, outgoing little boy, 6-year-old Etan vanished on the day he was allowed to walk alone, for the first time, to his school-bus stop. Half a block. Etan never made it to school, and his school didn't call Etan's parents, and so he had been missing for more than eight hours before anyone realized he had vanished.

Etan's disappearance was probably the first lost-child story to become national news. That was partly because Etan's father, Stan, was a professional photographer and instantly produced a trove of beautiful photos that quickly adorned "Missing" posters all over New York City and far beyond. It was partly because Etan disappeared in SoHo, a New York City neighborhood that was a very small town: everyone knew everyone else; everyone dropped everything to pitch in to try to help find Etan.

But, of course, they never did. After the police called off the official search, the lead detective on the case continued to investigate on his own. He later committed suicide; those who knew him said Etan's unsolved disappearance broke him.

Etan has haunted me, as well. I remember that Etan's 3-year-old brother used to carry his toy plastic telephone to his mother and say, "Call Etan?"

I remember that even years later, Stan and Julie Patz would not move to a new address and would not give up their telephone number, the number Etan knew.

Now New York City police have gathered new information, identified a "new" suspect (one who was ruled out as a suspect 30 years ago) and were digging in a basement just a couple of doors from the Patz family's Prince Street loft - between the loft and the school-bus stop. Etan may have been that close all this time.

Since Etan vanished - and two years later, 6-year-old Adam Walsh (whose mother lost sight of him among the clothing racks in a mall department store and never saw him alive again) - much as been done to improve our chances of keeping our children safe and our odds of finding them if they are snatched away.

Stan and Julie Patz and John and Reve Walsh worked hard to make this happen after they found there was no central clearinghouse for information on missing children, no organized investigative approach to identify possible predators.

We now have registries of sexual offenders; the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children is a clearinghouse for information and assistance. We plant microchips in our children, or fingerprint them. Still, the disappearance of a small child is not uncommon - and the heartbreak is beyond comprehension.

Reve Walsh wasn't wrong to look away for a few moments while she shopped in Sears. Julie Patz wasn't wrong to allow Etan the freedom to walk half a block alone on a sunny May morning. Children are at risk even if their parents never flag in their watchfulness.

Over the years, I have often approached utter strangers, moms or dads, to point out that their little one has toddled away while they were thumping the melons or holding up a dress to a mirror. I taught my own children to be wary of strangers - hating the message of fear and distrust I was sending but thinking of sunny, friendly little Etan Patz. The dog slept in the kids' room, not in mine. For all that, in the end, they grew up safely. We were lucky.

Jane See White is an editor at the Arizona Daily Star. Email: jwhite@azstarnet.com

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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