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Safety and fear make up Adam Walsh's legacy

Reve Walsh displays a photo of her son, Adam, as her husband, John Walsh, discusses the 1981 murder of the boy at a news conference in Hollywood on Tuesday.

Associated Press

Reve Walsh displays a photo of her son, Adam, as her husband, John Walsh, discusses the 1981 murder of the boy at a news conference in Hollywood on Tuesday.

We've never been more safe.

We've never been more afraid.

That's the paradox we're left with now that police have finally named a killer in the murder of Adam Walsh.

For 27 years, it seemed that the freckle-faced 6-year-old was snatched by the bogeyman Out There Somewhere. Last week, we got a name: Ottis Toole, drifter and serial killer, who died in 1996 while in prison for other crimes. But since 1981, when Adam was kidnapped from a Sears at a South Florida mall, we've become irreversibly more watchful, and more worried, and more aware of dangers both real and imagined.

We search for missing kids better now. We find more of them. But we're also a little paranoid. We put kids on leashes and track them by satellite. We teach them the world can be mean.

The legacy of Adam Walsh isn't fixed. It pulses on a sliding scale between cautious responsibility and hypervigilance.

Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, credits Adam's father, John Walsh, for changing the way parents and lawmakers think about and respond to the threat.

"Adam's story captured the attention of the American media and moms and dads all over the country," Allen said. "The results have been overwhelmingly positive."

A leading criminologist says not so.

"John Walsh, if he had raised awareness in a more rational, considerate and moderate way, he might have done some good," said Richard Moran, a sociologist and criminologist at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. "But he raised awareness in this hysterical way and he created enormous anxiety among parents.

"It robbed a lot of children of their childhoods."

The changes — in law, and in perception — started almost immediately after Adam Walsh went missing.

John Walsh and his wife lobbied Congress to pass the Missing Children's Act in 1982. It required the FBI to enter data about missing children into a national crime database. They also helped found the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children in 1984.

Security tightened at stores and schools. Pictures of missing kids appeared on milk cartons and shopping bags and fliers in the mail.

In 2006, on the 25th anniversary of Adam Walsh's kidnapping, the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act was passed, expanding the national registry of sex offenders and stiffening penalties against them.

These days, Amber alerts go out, practically instantly, all over the country, when a kid goes missing. Code Adam is an alarm set off in stores that alerts employees to a missing child and locks the doors.

Statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice show that since the mid 1970s violent crime has gone down, down, down.

The Department of Justice estimates that 115 kids a year are kidnapped in what are labeled "stereotypical" kidnappings — a stranger taking a child with intent to keep or harm or kill. Fewer than half of those cases end in deaths.

In 1990, police recovered 62 percent of missing kids. Now it's about 96 percent, according to Allen, the president of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

It's impossible to say exactly how much of this has to do with Adam Walsh.

On Tuesday, though, Allen's group called Walsh's parents "true American heroes" who "deserve the gratitude of every person."

It's safer now. Kids are far more likely to die by drowning, choking or in a car crash than they are to be kidnapped, raped and killed. Even accidental deaths are on the decline, thanks to bike helmets and seat belts and pool fences. It just doesn't feel safer.

Moran blames John Walsh.

"He created a sense of panic that was unrealistic," Moran said, "and he inflicted it on the nation."

Said author Richard Louv, who writes about overanxious, overprotective parents: "I'm not saying there's no risk out there, and I'm not saying the fear people feel is silly. But the stats in no way match the amount of fear parents feel."

In Florida a generation ago — before Carlie Brucia was taken and killed in Sarasota, before Sarah Lunde was taken and killed in Ruskin, before Jessica Lunsford was taken and killed in Homosassa — kids built tree forts and rode bikes all day till dark and played cowboys and Indians with cap guns in orange groves.

Not anymore.

Now we scan mug shots on sheriffs' Web sites.

Now we check for area pedophiles on the national sex offender registry.

America's Most Wanted, hosted by John Walsh, is on still, and has been for two decades.

Nancy Grace is on CNN every night talking about Orlando girl Caylee Anthony, confirmed dead.

Malls offer fingerprinting and DNA swabbing. Dentists can put ID chips in kids' teeth. Parents can buy GPS-based homing devices with names like Toddler Tag to stitch into their kids' clothes.

"This is all about this little boy," John Walsh said at last week's news conference.

More than 27 years had passed since a voice came over the loudspeaker at the mall.

"Adam Walsh," the voice said.

"Please come to customer service."

Michael Kruse can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6244.

Safety and fear make up Adam Walsh's legacy 12/19/08 [Last modified: Friday, December 26, 2008 8:57pm]
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