Adam Walsh: the Missing Child Case that Changed America

Do you remember the case of Adam Walsh?

Tomorrow night I will have the honor of speaking to Detective turned Private Investigator, Joe Matthews – the man who broke the disappearance/murder case wide open.  I am humbled and intrigued to hear his personal take on solving the sad cold case that captivated America for years.

What’s particularly interesting about the disappearance/murder of Adam Walsh is the fact that his father John Walsh decided to make capturing the bad guys his life’s mission.  He brokered a deal with Fox in 1988 to air a show entitled, “America’s Most Wanted,” that would focus on fugitives from justice. It was the longest running crime reality show in Fox’s history (1988-2011) and resulted in the capture of over 1,000 offenders (notably, family annihilator John List was among them).

Walsh and his wife, Reve, also helped found the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, as well as pushing legislation through Congress to toughen laws/sanctions on sex offenders.

These steps were a monumental feat for anyone, let alone a family who was grieving such a horrible and senseless loss.

Yet, the movement isn’t without it’s detractors…

When Walsh began his tv host gig on Fox, there was very little in the way of “true crime” content coming over the airwaves. Of course, now it’s difficult to turn on the television and NOT see a true crime show.  It’s one of the largest and most lucrative genres  in the past several years – and it shows no sign of slowing. It seems that the public has a voracious appetite for all things criminal, and networks have been quick to cash in on the frenzy. And Walsh’s detractors cite his 1988 brain-child “America’s Most Wanted” for starting the “predator panic” that has ensued.

“Predator Panic” (a.k.a. “moral panic”) is loosely defined as having a sense of a loss of control and fear about something that is either irrational or unlikely to occur, as well as a sense of moral outrage against a person or persons/group that are thought to be responsible.  A good example of this might be the outrage that some community members have expressed when a registered sex offender is slated to move into the neighborhood. The type of crime doesn’t typically matter to those who are panicked – perhaps the registered offender is merely guilty of “statutory rape” where their partner was only a few years younger than them, but underage at the time – all that matters is that he is on the registry. 

Another example of Predator Panic extends to the concept of “Stranger Danger” (a phrase that caught on after the Walsh case made national news).  While Adam Walsh was, indeed, kidnapped and murdered by a total stranger, it is exceptionally unlikely that most victims of molestation or kidnapping will be at the hands of someone they don’t know.  In fact, the vast majority of the crimes that involve child sexual abuse and murder are committed by a person that the child is familiar with. Many of them are committed by family members. Thus, the panic surrounding “stranger danger”  (i.e. being fearful of the man who drives the creepy van) rather than being vigilant about the known entities in your child’s life is foolish.  It is a misdirection of energy and time.  Even worse, expending effort teaching a child to avoid strangers could have the disadvantage of communicating to them that all family and friends are, therefore, okay (making it much more difficult for the child to speak up when something occurs).

While the aforementioned points are valid ones – and have frustrated me in my own career – I do not, in any way, think that John Walsh is to blame.

Society, as a whole, has its own reasons for believing that strangers and everyone on the registry is to blame…and those reasons have very little to do with reality television.  Instead, I believe that it’s much easier for society to retain the belief that everyone they invite into their lives (friends, coaches, family) is safe, and that offenders who are identified for them (due to their registry status) are dangerous.  After all, it’s much less threatening than the truth that criminals who harm children might be the neighbor you drink beer with, the coach you pal around with at the potluck, or that odd guy your sister married, right?

2 thoughts on “Adam Walsh: the Missing Child Case that Changed America

    1. I’ve been very busy, but I’m happy to make your acquaintance, Mr. Morgan. I encourage everyone to check out the multiple books on the subject and make up their own minds. It was a tragic and difficult case for everyone it touched.

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