Much has changed since Jacob Wetterling's abduction

Ernie Allen
Ernie Allen is the president and CEO of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

In 1989, 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling was abducted by a masked gunman while riding his bicycle home from a convenience store in St. Joseph, Minn. The abduction triggered a massive search and national media attention.

It was a wake-up call for parents everywhere, ending what for many was a naive innocence. People thought such acts only happened somewhere else -- in major cities or dangerous foreign countries. Parents asked, "If your child isn't safe in St. Joseph, where is he safe?"

Following the abduction, Jacob's parents formed the Jacob Wetterling Foundation. Patty Wetterling became a tireless leader and spokesperson for missing children and child safety. She has fought for laws to keep children safer, including a landmark 1994 law that mandated sex-offender registries in every state. She also serves on the board of directors of the organization I lead, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, and works with the center to train law enforcement and educate them about child abduction from a family's perspective. And she is a voice of hope for families of other missing children.

An estimated 2,000 children are reported missing every day. Time is the enemy in the search for a missing child, but there is more hope than ever before that more of these children can be recovered alive. Research tells us that while most of the victims of the most serious stranger abductions survive, 91 percent of the recoveries occur within the first 24 hours. Yet we are seeing the recoveries of more long-term missing children. Elizabeth Smart of Utah was recovered after nine months; Shawn Hornbeck of Missouri after four years; Steven Stayner of California after seven years, and of course Jaycee Dugard of California after 18 years.

In the 1980s, many police departments still had mandatory waiting periods that had to expire before they searched for missing children, and they would not even take a missing child report until 24, 48 or 72 hours had passed. It was not until 1990 that Congress banned such waiting periods. In that and other ways, times have changed:

Today, law enforcement is better trained, better prepared and responding more swiftly and effectively than ever before.

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Today, law enforcement has better technology and more resources to help locate missing children and they are more knowledgeable about child abductors and the offenses they committed.

Today, when a child goes missing, a report is immediately entered in the FBI's National Crime Information Center (NCIC).

Today, there is a national network transmitting images and information instantly across the country and around the world, a network that links and mobilizes 18,000 police departments.

Today, we have new tools like the AMBER Alert, and are mobilizing the eyes and ears of the public to assist in these searches as never before.

Today, every state has a mandatory sex offender registry, and more than 716,000 sex offenders are registered in the United States.

From many searching families I hear the same thing: that the worst part is not knowing. The families need answers. They need to know what happened.

We strive to keep long-term cases alive and ensure that missing-child cases are never closed. The Cold Case Unit at our center has worked with law enforcement to resolve more than 400 of these long-term cases, including one from 1947. No case is ever closed until we learn what happened to the child.

Our forensic artists use age progression for long-term missing children to create a likeness of how the child would appear today. In fact, we have an age-progressed photo of the now 32-year-old Jacob Wetterling, which we continue to circulate widely, seeking new leads and information.

Part of Jacob's legacy is that today, more missing children come home safely than at any time in history. More offenders who prey upon children are being brought to justice. The search for Jacob has continued for 21 years. Last month, the search intensified when new leads took law enforcement back to an area near where Jacob was abducted.

Jacob is still missing. Our belief is that even today, someone knows where Jacob is and what has happened to him. Our hope is that we are getting closer to being able to provide some answers to the Wetterling family.


Ernie Allen is president and CEO of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which was involved in the search last month of a farm near the scene of Jacob Wetterling's abduction.