Remembering the "Missing Children" Milk Cartons

Do you remember the “missing children” milk carton campaign?  If you are around my age or older, surely you do.  I do, of course, but I admit I hadn’t thought about it in a long time.  What sparked my memory was this great podcast from 99% Invisible with Roman Mars:  http://99percentinvisible.org/ [It’s a quirky, interesting podcast—you should check it out.]  Anyway, this week’s episode was on that campaign, and I learned a lot about it—most of which was totally new to me.

First:  did you know that it started in Des Moines, Iowa?  The very first child to appear on a milk carton was Johnny Gosch, 13 years old, who disappeared from his paper route on a Sunday morning in 1982.  Someone called the Goschs to tell them that they hadn’t received their paper, and when the father went out looking for Johnny, he found his red wagon full of papers, but Johnny was missing.  They called the police right away, but they were slow to act:  this was Des Moines, after all—and were the parents sure Johnny hadn’t just run away?
Now here’s an interesting fact:  at that time, children who disappeared were not treated differently than adults, which meant that they had to be gone for three days before they could be reported missing.  I suppose you could say, then, that one good thing that came out of Johnny’s disappearance was that while the Goschs searched for their child, they also wrote legislation that would become the Johnny Gosch law, differentiating missing children from missing adults.  We wouldn’t have Amber Alerts today without that law.

However, Johnny stayed missing; and two years later, in 1984, another young paperboy in Des Moines went missing too, Eugene Martin. Gene had a relative who worked at a local dairy, the Anderson and Ericson dairy.  He wanted to help, so he and his boss got together and hatched an idea to help find both boys.  They contacted each family and offered to put both boys’ picture on the side of milk cartons.  The families agreed, and within weeks, the missing boys’ faces were in grocery stores all over Des Moines.

Over the next few weeks, the campaign spread to other Midwestern cities, and other Midwestern dairies, until it finally went national.  Once this happened, the National Child Safety Council got involved, and pushed to get the campaign nation-wide, so that a child’s picture who went missing in California might have her face on a milk carton in Pennsylvania.  A list of 77 children was generated, using cases that were believed to be “dangerous stranger” abductions, rather than family/friends; and layouts were generated by hand.  The word “MISSING” was put on top of two different black and white photos, laid side by side, with the relevant information printed underneath.  Within several months over 700 independent dairies had signed on to participate.  Some sources have estimated that over 5 billion milk cartons with pictures were printed, and a total of 200 children had their pictures printed on the cartons.

Another interesting fact:  the milk carton campaign only lasted two years, from 1984 to 1986, and it was largely unsuccessful.  Of the 200 children features, only two were ever found alive, and one of those was unrelated to the milk carton. 

So, as you can imagine, the program had it advantages, but it also had its detractors.  Some felt that it promoted more awareness:  people were paying more attention to children around them, and perhaps acting when they saw a child in distress.  Legislation was passed during this time, establishing a protocol for finding missing children; and some parents took the opportunity over breakfast [with milk on the table] to go over with their children what to do if they were approached by a stranger.

However, others, perhaps most notably Dr. Benjamin Spock, argued strongly against the campaign.  They said it needlessly scared children; and, more importantly, it overestimated the danger to children from strangers.  Then as now, the vast majority of children are kidnapped by someone close to them—not by a stranger:  every year, 800,000 children are reported missing to the authorities; of those, only 115 are taken by strangers [according to the Dept. of Justice].  The milk carton campaign thus seemed to be not only unsuccessful, but even unhelpful.  No wonder it didn’t last.

I wish I had some deep theological insight to offer about this whole campaign—I don’t, really.  But, I guess what struck me about the whole podcast is the effort, the attempt that was made by a whole range of people to help rescue kidnapped children—regardless of whether or not they succeeded.  I am touched, somehow, by a local dairy that would offer what it could—milk cartons—in the service of hope and slim chances, and for the love of two small boys in their neighborhood.  

My colleagues Brooks Schramm and Maria Erling both preached sermons this week of exhortation—encouraging us to try:  to try to speak faithfully and kindly of others; and to try and makepeace, not just observe it.  They both are good Lutherans, of course, so they know we are going to fail—but nevertheless, as Brooks said, “It isn’t a sin to try.”

So, this story of what I suppose must be called a failure feels instead to me like a noble attempt at trying, even if it didn’t succeed, even if there were some negative reactions.  I think our world could use  more trying—more effort, more attempts—that is motivated by love and a desire to do something good for our neighbors near and far, with whatever gifts God has given us.  Because, after all, not only is it not a sin to try, I’m beginning to think more and more that sins of omission are worse than we thought.

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