Before the era of AMBER Alerts and GPS tracking, child abduction cases were really hard to crack in the 1980s. There was no way to create a general public awareness of these abductions, and it used to take years for the police to even get a headstart on a case. So, the authorities and family members tried to think of a better way to let people know. One of the most innovative ways was to place the photo of the missing child on milk cartons. Known as the “Missing Children Milk Carton Campaign,” it was developed so everyone who purchases a milk carton would get all the details of the missing child. They can call and alert the authorities if they learn something.
In the 1980s, there was a practice in the US to put advertisements of missing children on milk cartons. The first to appear were photos of Johnny Gosch and Eugene Martin who went missing while delivering newspapers. By March 1985, 700 of 1,600 independent dairies adopted this practice.
Johnny Gosch, 13, disappeared from his hometown, Des Moines, Iowa, in 1982. He was delivering newspapers on his daily route when he went missing. He left his red wagon full of newspapers abandoned on a sidewalk. When Johnny went missing, the Missing Children Milk Carton Campaign did not exist. But just two years later, another paperboy, Eugene, went missing. This time, in September 1984, Anderson & Erickson Dairy printed the images of Eugene and Johnny as an advertisement on their milk cartons.
Eventually, many more diaries took up this initiative. A milk-carton advertising program for missing children was started in Chicago in January 1985. This was done with support from the police. Out of the 1,600 independent diaries in the United States, 700 of them adopted this initiative by March 1985.
One of the first children who went missing was six-year-old Etan Patz. He went missing in 1979 on the way to his school bus. His photo appeared on the milk cartons in 1985. Since there was no system for tracking missing children in the US at that time, this initiative was highly supported. Consumers could report back to the authorities in case they see any of the children whose photos were on the milk cartons.
While the majority of the featured children were never found, Bonnie Lohman was reunited with her father through one such advertisement. Bonnie was abducted by her mother and stepfather. She is one of the very few success stories of the missing children milk carton campaign.
When the campaign started, about 5 billion milk cartons were printed with the images and details of missing children. Unfortunately, the majority of the children were never found. Despite that, there was one case that turned out to be exceptional. It was the case of Bonnie Lohman, a little girl who saw her own face on a milk carton and was reunited with her father.
Bonnie Lohman was abducted from her father by her mother and stepfather. Since she was not taken by a stranger, her case was not a typical abduction case. But her father somehow managed to get her photo on the milk cartons. Bonnie was abducted at the age of three. She lived in Spain as well as Hawaii with her mother and stepdad. She was not allowed to roam around outdoors. As she grew, her stepdad gave more freedom. One day, she was visiting the grocery store with her stepdad. It was there that she stumbled upon a milk carton with her photo on it. As she did not know how to read, she couldn’t read that above her photo was written “MISSING CHILD.” Her stepfather was good enough to buy the milk carton, cut out Bonnie’s image, and let her save it.
Bonnie was warned by her stepdad to keep the image a secret. But Bonnie once accidentally left it in her neighbor’s house along with her bag of toys. The neighbors called the police upon discovering the photo and Bonnie was reunited with her father.
The campaign had to go through numerous criticisms while it operated. Some people believed that it was overstating the risk of “stranger danger,” and some said that it was racially biased. Some also said that such ads were distressing to small kids at breakfast tables.
Bonnie Lohman was one rare case that brought success to a highly unsuccessful campaign like the Missing Child Milk Carton Campaign. Being ineffective and not performing up to expectations, the campaign had to go through harsh criticisms while it existed. Some people believed that the campaign heightened the awareness of “stranger danger,” even though the majority of the child abductions were carried out by people they know. In 2002, a study of 800,000 abductions of minors, it was found that 25% of them were family abductions. Many were just kids running away from home. Just 7% were non-family abductions, and only 115 were stereotypical kidnappings. Stereotypical kidnappings are when children are abducted by strangers, detained overnight, and transported. It is defined as “a nonfamily abduction perpetrated by a slight acquaintance or stranger in which a child is detained overnight, transported at least 50 miles, held for ransom, or abducted with the intent to keep the child permanently, or killed.”
The campaigns were also said to be racially biased. Eddie Griffin, a standup comedian, even did a routine based on this notion. Most of the featured children on the milk cartons were White. This was contrary to the data that said that out of all non-family abductions, Black (not-Hispanic) children comprised 42% even though they made up only 15% of the US child population.
There were also some legal issues that offered hindrances to the campaign. Moreover, the campaign was seen by many as bringing emotional distress to young children. They had to stare at images of missing children while eating breakfast.
By the late 1980s, the system started to fade with the creation of the AMBER alert system in 1996. But for the time that the campaign ran, it helped raise awareness and contribute to the formation of the Missing Children Assistance Act.
With the invention of the AMBER Alert system, the Missing Children Milk Carton Campaign started to fade. Amber Alerts were more technologically advanced and used mobile notifications to send up-to-date details on possible child abductions.
One of the recent instances, when an image of a missing child appeared on milk cartons, was in 2000. The image was of Molly Bish who disappeared from her lifeguarding job. Her parents did their part actively in raising awareness of missing children. But unfortunately, Molly’s remains were uncovered three years later just 5 miles from where she went missing.
As a whole, the Missing Children Milk Carton Campaign didn’t see much success. But it definitely helped change people’s perspective on child abductions. When Johnny Gosch went missing, there was no legal differentiation between an abducted child and an abducted adult. It was Gosch’s mother, Noreen Gosch, who helped to write the legislation to distinguish children from adults in missing person cases in Iowa. This campaign also helped to make the Missing Children Assistance Act more firm and responsive.
[source: 1, 2, 3]