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
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
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 make
peace, 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.