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After NYC boy went missing, parenting was never the same

NEW YORK — It is there in the quick steps of a woman hurrying up the street in Brooklyn, muttering to herself, “I’m a good parent, I’m a good parent.” She was regretting letting her son run home alone from a restaurant and was rushing to catch up with him.

It is there in the childhood memories of a girl who grew up after that day, always looking over her shoulder. She would become a mother telling a cautionary tale to her own children. The one about the little boy.

It is there in the father who remembers, as a boy, the room going silent when the news anchor Roger Grimsby gave his nightly update on the search. Today, that father says he “always has an eye in the back of my head.”

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These are glimpses of the legacy of Etan Patz.

On Friday, a Manhattan jury concluded that it could not reach a verdict in the trial of Pedro Hernandez, who was charged with killing Etan on the basis of a confession his lawyers argued was a figment of an unstable mind.

The district attorney has not decided whether to retry Hernandez, but no verdict, nor lack of one, could change the impact the 6-year-old boy’s disappearance had on parenting. His abduction in 1979 transformed the experience of childhood for many boys and girls his age and set the mold for the sort of fathers and mothers they themselves would become.

He was not famous when he vanished, his family not a wealthy target of kidnappers seeking ransom. And that made the case all the more haunting in its randomness. An early police theory, that a lonely woman had snatched up the boy to raise as her own, in hindsight seems startlingly naïve, quaint. The disappearance of Etan Patz changed what parents feared.

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“In some ways, it is the most important case, culturally,” said Paula S. Fass, a historian and author of the book “Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America,” published in 1997. “This case served as a wellspring of the idea that when little boys and little girls — but especially boys — were taken, that it was almost certainly by a pedophile.”

Statistically, abductions by strangers remain rare. According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, 194 Amber Alerts involving 243 children were issued in 2013, the most recent year analyzed. The vast majority of abductors were relatives or people who knew the children.

But Etan’s was the first of a small number of cases extending over a generation, including those involving Adam Walsh and Amber Hagerman, that were rare but still saturated news coverage, creating the impression of an epidemic.

Fass became a mother in New York City two years after Etan disappeared. “The reason I began researching this book
is I became what I describe as one of the victims of that cultural craziness,” she said.

Children who grew up in the city at the time Etan disappeared remember the search, the police helicopters hovering over SoHo, the volunteers shouting his name in the street.

“Those posters were everywhere,” said Elizabeth Blake, 42, a copywriter. “We all have eyes for his face. We all know it immediately.”

Eddie Spaedh, 42, was a boy in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. “The whole neighborhood changed,” he said. “We went from having to go in when the lights came on to parents looking out the window and out on the streets, always watching us.”

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Joshua Parkhurst, a lawyer, was growing up nearby in Greenwich Village. “I remember sometimes you were on the school bus and you’d see a kid with blond hair,” he said. “And you said to your friend, ‘Is that Etan Patz?’ ” Others said they thought they saw Etan years later, when they were well into their 20s.

Most of these children grew up to become, by their own definition, helicopter parents. Spaedh, with an 11-year-old son, said he knows he acts more like his parents did after Etan disappeared than they did before that day.

“I understand that kids have to fall down and get dirty,” he said. “But if I can’t catch them, it’s on me.”