Adam Walsh would be 31 years old today had he not been kidnapped from a Florida shopping mall and murdered. The little boy in the famous photograph — the one showing a smiling six-year-old holding a baseball bat — might be a husband and father by now had he not been abducted 25 years ago last week.
The horror of their child’s murder has never left John and Reve Walsh, who were at the White House last Thursday to watch President Bush sign the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006.
Neither has that horror left many others who remember the frantic search, the heartbreaking pleas from the parents, and the shocking finale: The child’s severed head found in a Florida canal. The Walsh family believes Adam was abducted by serial killer Ottis Toole, who twice confessed to killing Adam only to later recant. He died in prison in 1996 of cirrhosis of the liver while serving a life sentence for other murders.
Adam’s death was the beginning of an ugly era — the era of milk-carton kids, Amber alerts, Code Adams, Megan’s Law, and girls kidnapped out of their bedrooms at night. Parents began routinely fingerprinting and photographing their youngsters in order to make it easier for police to find them if they disappeared, and bought gadgets designed to help keep track of their kids in a crowd.
The tragedy of Adam Walsh has stayed with me because just a few years after his murder my husband and I became the parents of two little boys. Ironically, although I grew up just a few miles from where Ted Bundy and the Green River Killer preyed on Seattle-area women, I never worried about being attacked. It was the murder of a little boy 3,000 miles away that haunted me.
Because of what happened to Adam Walsh, I worried every time I took my young sons to the mall, to a public pool, or to a McDonald’s Playland — any place where I could not keep them constantly in my line of vision. Despite the hassle of getting my two toddlers into and out of their car seats, I never, ever, left them in the car for even a minute while I took a package into the post office or ran into the grocery store for a gallon of milk. My kids loved visiting Chucky Cheese, but I hated the place: Too many children, too much noise, and too many exits. At movie theaters, I dragged the boys into women’s restrooms long after they were old enough to use the men’s restroom. After all, who knew what kind of pervert might be hanging around in the men’s toilet?
Still, despite my caution, when he was two years old, my son Trevor went missing at a mall department store in Tacoma, Washington. He’d dropped to his knees and crawled under one of dozens of round racks packed with clothing on sale. A few minutes later, a store employee found him on the other side of the store, scooped him up, and announced, over the store intercom that a blond, blue-eyed little boy in Osh Kosh overalls was waiting at the lost and found. Thank God, I thought. But when I arrived there a minute or two later, I was told that another woman had already taken him.
It was the worst moment of my life.
Fortunately, the woman who had my son was a friend who was also shopping at the store. She’d recognized Trevor and decided to take him to go find mommy. Nobody stopped her. Nobody asked her for identification. They just let her have him.
That was 18 years ago. Today, store employees would probably be more careful, in part because there are 600,000 registered sex offenders in the U.S.
Because of what happened to Adam, it’s useless to tell parents that “only” 200 children are abducted by strangers every year. That’s four per state — it’s a real threat for parents. Every stranger, and many neighbors, are potential threats.
We have become so accustomed to terrible things happening to kids that we tend to forget that we didn’t always live in such fear. Until recently, we didn’t have child-sex tourism, child prostitution, and pedophiles soliciting our kids online. A few years ago, we would not have accepted a television show like Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, which regularly chronicles, for our viewing pleasure, stories about the torture, rape, and murder of America’s children.
The Adam Walsh law — which the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children calls “the toughest and most important piece of legislation in the past 25 years in helping to save children’s lives,” goes on the offensive against child predators by expanding the national sex offender registry — integrating the information in state registries to make it harder for pedophiles to avoid detection by moving to another state. It imposes tough mandatory minimums for those who commit serious crimes against children and increases penalties for sex traffickers and those who force children into prostitution. The law also provides money to train law enforcement in combating Internet crimes against children.
This law is a huge leap forward. But unfortunately, it only goes after predators after they have victimized a child. We also need to go after the people who inspire these crimes: pornographers.
According to the National Coalition Against Pornography, no single characteristic of pedophilia is more pervasive than the obsession with child pornography. The vast majority of child molesters admit to the regular use of hard-core porn, and one study found that states with the highest consumption of pornography also have the highest rape rates. “Not everyone who reads porn acts out [against children], but everyone who acts out does read child pornography,” Roben Rodriguez of the International Center for Mission and Exploited Children told USA Today.
Porn is a $10-billion-a-year industry, much of it related to organized crime. Some 800 million adult videos and DVDs are rented every month — many to people who live near our homes.
Why do we put up with this? Why do we put up with porn on the candy aisle of the grocery store, Internet portals that allow child-porn clubs on their websites, and cable contracts that force us to subscribe to sleaze if we want Sesame Street?
You’d think parents, with Adam Walsh and our own children in mind, would do everything they could to rid the world of the child porn that drives pedophiles to commit crimes against children. Last week’s bill-signing is a sobering reminder of how many victims are out there–and, tragically, how many more victims there are to come.
– Anne Morse is a senior writer with the Wilberforce Forum.