The disappearance of New York City 6-year-old Etan Patz in 1979 changed the way society and the legal system respond to missing children, reports NPR. Before Etan vanished, missing kids weren’t pictured on milk cartons. His case, along with others including the abduction and murder of Adam Walsh two years later, also led to hundreds of laws at the federal, state and local levels. Actions that are taken for granted today — including Amber Alerts and coordination between law enforcement agencies from different jurisdictions — didn’t exist 30 years ago.
“America has fundamentally changed the way it searches for missing children,” says Ernie Allen, president and co-founder of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. “Much of the legacy of Etan Patz is that more children come home safely today than at any time in American history.” In the 1970s, police departments required parents to wait for a certain period of time — 24, 48 or 72 hours — before they could even file a missing-persons report. Today, law enforcement agencies are not only able but expected — and often required by statute — to respond much faster. “Those first few hours are critical,” says Patty Wetterling, whose son Jacob was kidnapped at age 11 in 1989 in Minnesota. “Washington state put out a homicide study that told us, of all the children who are kidnapped and murdered, most are killed within the first three hours.”