We’ve come a long way in our efforts finding kids since the Missing Milk Carton Kids.
With the involvement of the internet and instant information, the way we find out about missing kids is definitely better. The Face on the Milk Carton Campaign in the 1980s was a great start. But there were issues that we now avoid in various ways.
In this article, we will take a walk through what was, what worked, (and didn’t), what it’s like today, and how you can help.
Missing Milk Carton Kids: The Beginning
Let’s first take a walk back and talk about how it started and what happened. I know it’s hard to believe since we now have Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, telling everything going on in our lives. In the 1970s police departments and others hesitated to get involved when it was an abduction by a non-custodial parent. The police considered this to be a “domestic” situation, not a crime.
In the 1970s, custodial parents became very frustrated at the lack of concern and assistance by the police. They launched a movement to combat the problem. They even gave it a name: stranger danger, then child snatching.
Advocacy groups started with Pamphlets to schools because noncustodial parents would enroll kids in new schools under different names.
Remember before we had internet? No, probably not. Anyway, there was a time when we didn’t have internet. I tell my grandkids that I’m older than Google and they laugh, but ….
So before the internet, text messages, Amber Alerts, Facebook, Instagram, TickTok, Pinterest, and the many social networks we have now, pictures of missing kids were on milk cartons. Oh wait…milk cartons used to be paper-based and printed photos were on the cartons. Here’s a picture of a milk carton, just in case you’ve never seen one.
At the time, it made perfect sense. Most Americans did drink milk, so that was a way to get information about missing kids out to the masses. Besides, since milk cartons were quart-sized, that would mean more frequent trips to the store, so the pictures were seen more often and did change.
In 1979, Etan Patz went missing and a large effort was made to find him.
Back to the early 80s, there was no widespread system in place to help locate missing children. The Milk Carton Kids absolutely pioneered the way to public awareness, missing kids, child abduction in general, and led to changes in legislation and tracking.
Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that it did start as a political-themed grass-roots movement in Iowa. I know. Shocker.
But not before politics got involved in 1988. Bruce Babbitt, a presidential candidate, taunted fellow candidate Al Gore by saying Mr. Gore should be featured on a milk carton so people would know who he is (Mr. Gore skipped the Iowa caucuses).
But keep in mind, while statistics of missing kids and recovered children are hard to come by, there have been relatively accurate estimates that over 800,000 kids go missing every year, many of which are kidnapping by non-custodial parents, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. That means 2,185 kids go missing each day. Wow.
Milk Carton Kids: The Early Stages
In the 1980s advocacy continued and began to include all kids. There were a handful of high-profile cases, including Etan Patz and Adam Walsh (son of now famous Crime fighter John Walsh of America’s Most Wanted fame). Runaways were also included, allowing the claim that hundreds of thousands of kids went missing every year, as many as 2 million (probable inflated number).
So the outrageous statistics, along with a few high-profile cases, started a flood of information and people getting involved.
Some say the first of the Milk Carton Kids was from Anderson Erickson Dairy in Wisconsin, who printed the face of Johnny Gosch on its cartons. Johnny was from Iowa.
However, there are other claims to fame, such as Wisconsin’s Hawthorn Melody Farm Dairy who claims to be the first by agreeing to display a rotating group of missing Chicago children as well.
Others state that Etan Patz was the first milk carton kid. Eventually, as with all things, a national public council was formed called the US National Child Safety Council. That counsel created the “Milk Carton Kids Program”.
The current iteration of this counsel is now called the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
The First Hiccups
A few informants did tell the police they found a child by seeing the picture on the items, and eventually a movie or two was made talking about seeing the faces on the milk carton, but no data was kept.
During this time-frame, amateur detectives became a thing. Comic books had Lois Lane investigating missing kids; Berenstein Bears warned about “stranger danger”, detective novels searched for missing kids, and so forth.
There was a time in the mid 80s, that civic groups actually fingerprinted kids. The prints became part of a “kit” that parents could give to police in the event of a child abduction. Kids were even taught a “secret word” in the event a neighbor or friend came to pick them up from school or practice.
The Milk Carton Campaign only lasted two years, 1984 – 1986, and was considered largely unsuccessful. Of the 200 kids featured, only TWO were ever found alive and one was unrelated to the milk carton. It was further found that most of the abducted kids pictured on milk cartons were taken by a noncustodial divorced parent, not a stranger.
In contrast, using a different method, in 2015, 182 AMBER alerts were issued; 153 cases resulted in recovery.
There were legal issues that also arose in the mid-1980s. The question of who could actually legally post a childs picture on the milk carton became a problem. The campaign was also considered racially biased. There were even comedic routines that discussed the “white kids on the milk cartons”.
Based on these stats, child activists started to be concerned. It seems that children were starting to be afraid of strangers and concerned that they, too, may also become a statistic. Law Enforcement considered this an unintended consequence.
Another concern was the constant warning of danger by strangers especially when only 10 percent of the abductions are from strangers, and incredibly rare. An overwhelming number of cases of child abuse and murder were committed by someone who was known to the child.
The “stranger-danger” phrase was changed to “child snatching”. Parent groups would give out flyers and pamphlets with information about missing kids. However, it was a very slow process.
This meant faxing or mailing the flyers to various Police Departments that were in the vicinity or had any relevance to the child (non-custodial parent State, or Grandparent). Of course by then, the child had already been missing many hours and could be anywhere.
Milk Carton Kids: The Next Decade
Now, of course, we think of milk cartons as those plastic jugs with handles and if you remember the missing kids, you only think of the missing kids on the milk cartons. But dairies weren’t the only ones involved.
Before you could say “milk carton”, pizza boxes, junk mail envelopes, and grocery bags got involved. The common phrase was “Have you seen me?”
Almost half of the nation’s 1,800 independent dairies participated in the milk carton kids effort. Think about that…,missing milk carton kids, pizza boxes, junk mail, and grocery bags. Yet, no data was kept for how many of the kids were actually saved. The alert system allows for rapid public outreach on abduction cases via TV, satellite, and radio stations, email, texts, emergency broadcasting on mobile phones, electronic traffic and road condition signs, electronic billboards and more. Therefore, the spirit of the milk Carton Kids program lives on.
But just like everything else, pediatricians and psychologists got involved. Dr. Benjamin Spock, considered an expert at the time, and Dr T. Berry Brazelton became worried that kids would become afraid because of seeing the photos on missing kids the milk cartons. Eventually, in the late 80s, the milk carton campaign stopped.
By the 1990s, the Milk Carton Kids Program became obsolete with the new system, Amber Alert System, which is still in use today. The Amber Alert was implemented nationally in 2002, named for Amber Hagerman, who was abducted and killed in Arlington, Texas in 1996.
Probably the biggest innovation was the communication between police departments and even VICAP.
The Effectiveness of the Program
Etan Patz, 6 years old went missing May 25, 1979. Never Found.
Etan had already been missing 5 years when his face appeared on the milk carton. In 1983, President Ronald Regan declared the date of Etan’s disappearance as “National Missing Children’s Day” in the United States.
All the efforts didn’t work. In 2001, he was declared legally dead. In 2017, Pedro Hernandez was convicted of his death. At the time, he would have been 44 years old. Today, he would be 47.
Johnny Gosch, went missing September 5, 1982. Never Found.
There is a lot of speculations, twists and turns around Johnny Gosch’s disappearance. He allegedly went missing while on his usual paper route on September 5, 1982.
One of the biggest efforts to come from this case was the 72 hour waiting period change. In 1982, there was a 72 hour waiting period before they could investigate. In 1984, the Johnny Gosch Bill was passed that stated missing children cases were investigated immediately, not after 72 hours.
There is some speculation about whether or not Johnny is alive. His mother claimed that Johnny visited her in the middle of the night stating he was fine and that wouldn’t tell her where he was staying. She never gave up hope that her son was alive. However, to date, he has never been found and is still considered a missing kids.
Eugene Wade Martin
Eugene Wade Martin, 12 years old, went missing August 12, 1984, Never Found.
Another young man was on his paper route and was abducted, Eugene Wade Martin. He has never been found, is still considered a missing kid, nor has there been any justice.
This case was so similar to Johnny Golsch’s case, the State of Iowa created a joint poster for these two.
Bonnie Lohman, 3 years old, went missing …, Found.
Bonnie was only 3 years old when she went missing. She was abducted by her biological mother and stepfather. Her father had custody at the time.
Although not a typical “milk carton kid” case since it was a familial abduction, Bonnie’s father pleaded to have her case included on the milk carton.
At age 7, Bonnie saw herself on a milk carton while she was with her stepfather at the grocery store. Although she recognized herself, she didn’t really understand what was going on, so she agreed to keep it a secret.
However, Bonnie’s neighbors discovered her identity when the milk carton was accidentally left with a bag of toys at their house. Finally, the neighbors notified authorities and Bonnie was reunited with her father.
Bonnie was one of the very few success stories from this program.
Mollie Bish, 16 years old, went missing June 27, 2000, Not Found Alive.
By the time Molly Bish went missing in 2000, the milk carton program had fallen behind and had barely been used since the 1980s.
Desperation caused her parents to use the old system as well as every other avenue available to try and find their daughter, including putting her face on the side of the milk carton.
Her remains were finally discovered 3 years later close to where she was last seen. Her killer has never been identified.
How can you help?
You can help in a variety of ways.
Get involved in your local community.
Create your own version of a “Missing” flyer and post to all your social media. You can download a template at Download Missing Flyer Template. BE CAREFUL TO CHECK THE LATEST INFORMATION. Many cases have already been solved. In addition, always, ALWAYS put the number to law enforcement on the flyers.
“Adopt missing kids or a person”: Choose someone whose case isn’t getting a lot of publicity and spread the word.
If you are a blogger, write a blog post
If the missing person is in your area, print off flyers and post them in high-traffic areas.
If you know someone that lives a high-risk lifestyle, encourage them to check-in with you when they are going out (no judgment), note what they are wearing when they leave, and never stop encouraging them to get help.
Many People Are in Denial About Their Loved Ones. Encourage anyone that has missing relatives to notify authorities.
Children Can Go Missing in the Blink of an Eye
Immediately after you report someone missing, the first 24 hours are crucial
It is especially crucial in the case of a person being held against their will: It could be a matter of time before the perp realizes the victim is a witness and does the unthinkable.
It could be a life or death situation, if the person is missing without their medication. Be sure to notify the authorities of any and all medications the missing person takes on a daily basis.
The person could have wandered off into the wilderness without supplies or knowledge of nature. Inform the police if the individual has a habit of wandering.
Let the authorities know If the person is intoxicated, suicidal, or in the midst of a mental health crisis.
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All photos, images, quotes, and video clips are used for fair use commentary, criticism, and educational purposes. See Hosseinzadeh v. Klein, 276 F.Supp.3d 34 (S.D.N.Y. 2017) Equals Three, LLC v. Jukin Media, Inc., 139 F. Supp. 3d 1094 (C.D. Cal. 2015).