Not the first national news story—and not the last

Another story about another missing child in the news today. And sadly, the AP has one thing wrong: This unexplained case from 1984 is far from being "among the first missing children cases to receive national attention."

The search for Catherine Winters went into 60 different Indiana communities and 22 states. For a year and a half and beyond, she was written about in newspapers from New York City to Los Angeles. William Randolph Hearst offered a reward for her. She was the subject of one of the very early news films, which ran in countless theaters across the country. Her father used personal appearances, constant press interviews and even piano sheet music in an attempt to get the word out and uncover clues.

And he wasn't the first. Nearly 40 years before, the parents of little Charley Ross of Pennsylvania used similar tactics to try to discover who had stolen their son. In both these cases, widespread media attention failed to help searchers arrive at any final answers and even inspired backlash against the parents, who came to be viewed with suspicion by a voraciously interested public.

Why bother to remember these sad old stories? Because they show the disturbing longevity of this problem of missing children. Because they throw some doubt onto the impulse to involve the mass media in the search. Because they reveal that current cases are acting on a precedent, whether they know it or not.

Every case, its successes and failures, its tactics and attempts—for better and worse—affects those that come after. 

Posted on February 7, 2013 .