In May 1979, 6-year-old Etan Patz convinced his mother to let him walk to his school bus stop alone for the first time. He never made it home.
On Tuesday, a jury brought back a conviction for the decades-old murder.
It was a shocking case that cycled in and out of headlines for decades with all the elements of a TV drama: an early suspect who was a convicted child molester, a hard-charging prosecutor who kept the case in his sights over the years, and the latest defendant. That man, Pedro Hernandez, was nearly convicted in a 2015 trial, but a lone juror refused to convict then, citing questions about the defendant’s mental accuity. Patz’s father reportedly attended the latest trial every day.
Tuesday’s conviction is the latest chapter in a case that did a good amount to change the way children grow up in New York City and beyond.
Shortly after police officers and journalists began crisscrossing Patz’s SoHo neighborhood that spring, the child’s face — delicate and innocent-looking — became the first to grace milk cartons in what would become a trope of alarm and warning. President Ronald Reagan declared the day of his disappearance “National Missing Children’s Day,” and some parents began restricting their kids’ activities in a motion that continues to this day.
The intense public reaction to the case didn’t come out of nowhere. The Patz case “transformed what the public imagined that the kidnapper was doing with the child,” says Paula Fass, author of the history Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America. It was the first time a child kidnapping was explicitly and prominently perceived to be a sexual crime.
Fass places that moral outrage in the context of the “major transformations” taking place in American society at the time: the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s; gay men and women coming out publicly in large numbers; and an increasing number of mothers entering the workforce.
There were all sorts of complicated cultural feelings about the growing role of women in the working world, which led to concern that mothers wouldn’t be at home “all the time, in neighborhoods looking out the windows.” That became a “really powerful incentive to begin to imagine all sorts of terrible things happening to children,” Fass says.
As media and political attention fixated on a handful of similar child murders across the country, childhood began to change.
Fass points to her own upbringing in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn in the 1950s and 60s — walking down the block to buy a newspaper for her parents or play with friends in the street. “I went on the subway by myself at 10 years old.”
There were limits to childhood freedom — she was warned to be careful crossing the street and stay away from a bar near the local candy store. But she was often out of sight of parents. Today, meanwhile, “free-range” parents can face arrest for allowing kids to walk home from a park alone.
One irony of the Patz case was that his mother was in fact home. She had allowed Etan a brief moment of freedom that ended in a nightmare.
Another irony: the new norms of protectiveness sometimes overlook the ways society could actually protect and help its children.
“We do very little to protect parents from making hard decisions,” says Stephanie Coontz, author of The Way We Never Were: American Families And The Nostalgia Trap. A focus on “stranger danger” doesn’t do much to protect against domestic abuse within families. In terms of child care, we could ask government to provide safe, affordable care, or extend parental leave rather than scold families who struggle to do their best with their kids. While that has been a priority in places like New York City under Mayor Bill de Blasio, “that has not yet been the focus of politicians” nationwide, Coontz says.
Instead, we let ourselves be controlled by the terrifying outlier scenario. Just keep your children inside or watched, and everything will be better, the thinking goes.
Fass says that while raising her children in San Francisco, she wouldn’t let them do plenty of the things she was accustomed to growing up. But it’s still striking to see how far things have changed. “When I come to New York,” Fass noticed, it is hard to miss “the emptiness of the playgrounds.”