Missing children, “The Wire,” and reasons to persist

Etan Patz, who disappeared in Manhattan in 1979

Today is National Missing Children’s Day, which leads to thoughts of the parents and loved ones mourning the victims of John Wayne Gacy–the ones who frantically searched for months, sometimes years, before their boys were found in 1978 in the crawlspace under Gacy’s house or in the Des Plaines River, and the ones whose children may still be buried elsewhere, perhaps even at 6114 W. Miami, on Chicago’s northwest side.

New leads in the high-profile 1979 disappearance of six-year-old Etan Patz have produced striking results: The Manhattan district attorney reopened the case in 2010, and after further investigation, last month the FBI excavated a basement near the boy’s home. They came up empty-handed, but yesterday a man who worked in a nearby bodega at the time came forward and confessed to having abducted and murdered the child.

According to the New York Times story linked above, “The mobilization in the city to find Etan began a new era in the country, marked by children’s faces on milk cartons and made-for-television dramas about kidnapped children.”

It also led to the establishment of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. According to the center: “In 1984, the U.S. Congress passed the Missing Children’s Assistance Act which established a National Resource Center and Clearinghouse on Missing and Exploited Children. The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children was designated to fulfill this role.”

That legislation and the horrors of Gacy’s crimes led to the passage in 1984 of Illinois’ own Missing Child Recovery Act, which extensively beefed up the tools community and law enforcement can use to look for missing kids.

Michael K. Williams as Omar on “The Wire”

If a person disappears, when is the right time to stop searching? This article, written in 2008 for In These Times, about David Simon’s HBO series The Wire, suggests an answer.

The series weaves its stories around the participants in Baltimore’s drug trade, including the police, politicians, and citizens who, intentionally or not, allow it to flourish. Some critics found the story “bleak,” and Brian Cook reflects on charges that the series presents “a nihilistic, unrelentingly grim vision” (Ezra Klein at the American Prospect) and “an elaborate, moving brief for despair and (ultimately) indifference” (Reihan Salam at the American Scene).

Cook argues that it offers the opposite: hope.

He writes:

Its heroes and anti-heroes might be victims, but they are not passive. Rather, they are actively driven by a dissatisfaction with the status quo. What marks the show’s few villains are their complacency and acceptance of ‘the way things are.’ What defines the show’s heroes is that they will fight–their clueless bosses, their politicians, their rivals, their lovers, their addictions, themselves.

Regardless of whether or not the recent events in the case of Etan Patz lead to any kind of resolution, they remind us that evidence doesn’t disappear even if a case falls off the radar, and the families of missing persons never stop wanting answers.

*Update 11/14/12: In New York Pedro Hernandez has been charged with the murder of Etan Patz.

*Update 02/02/15: The trial for Patz’s murder began last month, but Hernandez has recanted and a mistrial was  declared after a witness for the prosecution turned hostile.



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