Milk Carton Kids

RM: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

The story we’re about to tell is pretty much the worst thing a parent can imagine.

NG: We were awakened by the phone ringing.

RM: That’s Noreen Gosch. It was early on a Sunday morning in 1982, in Des Moines, Iowa. Noreen’s son Johnny had left for his regular paper route.

NG: It was a neighbor saying they did not receive their newspapers.

RM: This wasn’t like Johnny, he’d been a paperboy for years; he’d never missed a delivery.

NG: His dad got up and said, “I’ll go help him finish the route, he’s probably just running late.” He went up the street and that’s where he saw Johnny’s wagon sitting.

RM: Johnny’s red wagon was sitting at the corner it was still full of newspapers.

NG: He rushed back and told me Johnny was gone, and call the police.

RM: Johnny Gosch was 13 when he disappeared. He had blue eyes and dirty blonde hair with a small gap between his front teeth, and his would be the first face of a missing child ever printed on a milk carton.

AB: It’s been 30 years since these milk cartons came and went. I wasn’t even alive to see them, but I still know about the faces on the milk cartons.

RM: That’s reporter Annie Brown.

AB: The image of a missing child on a milk carton became iconic; a kind of cultural shorthand for missing children. And even though this image has stuck around for three decades, the actual milk carton campaign only lasted 2 years, and it was largely unsuccessful at locating the kids on the cartons.

RM: The morning that Johnny disappeared, Noreen said it took 45 minutes for the police to arrive, so she called around to the other boys who delivered papers that morning. She found five witnesses that saw her son talking to a man in a blue van. She relayed this to the police.

NG: The cop looked at me and said “Well, has your son ever run away before?” and I said, “Well no, he’s never run away ever, nor did he run away today.”

AB: But the police were skeptical. This was Iowa, this kind of thing wasn’t supposed to happen to kids like Johnny, in places like Iowa.

NG: We’d never had a crime like this before.

RM: This was before Amber alerts, before those text messages that you get when a kid goes missing; there wasn’t even a category for missing children. Kids were put in the same group as missing adults and an adult had to be gone for 3 days before they were considered missing.

AB: Without the police’s help, Johnny’s parents tried everything they could on their own; they hired private investigators and coordinated and search parties.

RM: Meanwhile, as they searched they also wrote Iowa State legislation that would differentiate missing children from missing adults.

NG: I wrote the Johnny Gosch Law at my kitchen table.

AB: But after all of this, Noreen Gosch’s son was still gone.

RM: And then two years later in 1984, another little boy disappeared while delivering newspapers. He lived in a neighborhood not far from Johnny’s.

(Reporter): Eugene Martin was last seen delivering newspapers between 5:30 and 6:00 that morning, his paper bag with newspapers still inside was found just outside of Des Moines.

AB: This second paper boy had a relative who works at a local dairy; The Anderson & Erickson Dairy. The relative and the dairy’s owner came up with an idea to help find these boys.

NG: The Anderson & Erickson Dairy contacted each family, and they wanted to do something helpful in the investigation.

AB: The families of the missing boys agreed and within a few short weeks, thousands of milk cartons were rolled out of trucks and into grocery stores all over Des Moines. As clerks stocked their shelves, the faces of Johnny Gosch and Eugene Martin smiled back.

RM: The campaign started out at one local dairy, but over the next few weeks it spread to other Midwestern towns. An Illinois dairy saw it and said “Hey, why don’t we try that?” and from there it went national.

BH: Nearly everybody drinks milk, milk turns over quickly, so we could put a lot of different kid’s photos on, and pull children off that needed to come off at a moment’s notice.

AB: That’s Barbara Huggett. She was working as an artist at the National Child Safety Council in Michigan when the National Milk Carton campaign took off.

BH: Our founder, apparently he’d seen Johnny Gosch in your Eugene Martin on the Anderson & Erickson dairy milk cartons, but he felt that the program should be nationwide.

RM: A nationwide milk carton campaign would alert families in California to look for a child who went missing in Iowa.

AB: The national campaign brought together local groups looking for missing children, and together they came up with a list of 77 kids from all over the country.

BH: We took cases that were believed to be what they termed in those days, “dangerous stranger abductions.”

RM: In other words, kids that weren’t taken by someone they knew.

AB: Barb’s team didn’t have computers, so they cut and arranged all 77 layouts by hand.

BH: We designed a layout that was just you know, rather simple.

RM: In black block letters, the word MISSING was printed across the top of each waxy paper panel. Photos of two children relate side by side in black and white. Under the photos where their dates of birth, height, weight, and where they were last seen. They also printed the pictures on school milk cartons but only one child could fit on those.

AB: Barb reached out to dairies all over the country, asking if they’d be a part of the campaign. Within months, 700 independent dairies had signed on.

BH: Boy, I wish I knew how many cartons had circulated. I imagine it’s way into the billions. When you have 700-750 dairies printing day in and day out, for years.

AB: Some sources have estimated that as many as 5 billion milk cartons were printed with the faces of missing children.

RM: 200 missing children were featured on milk cartons as part of the campaign led by the National Child Safety Council; 2 were found alive. One was a kid named Bobby Smith Jr. Barb still remembers when she got the call about Bobby.

BH: After we’d gotten the word that the child had been found, it was just a sense of elation and you wanted to let everyone know in the building that had mailed it, boxed it, shipped it. You know, you just wanted to tell everyone who had touched it that was worthwhile. You could hear the cheer throughout the whole building. “Yay! We found a child!” it was wonderful, you know.

AB: But Bobby Smith wasn’t found because of the milk carton.

RM: Bobby was found by coincidence.

AB: His kidnappers’ car had been involved in an accident, and when the police came looking for the owner of the car they found Bobby.

RM: The other child found alive was a girl named Sheryl Lynn Kramer, but most of the kids featured in the national campaign and in the smaller local ones, were never found.

BH: Unfortunately, the leads from the milk cartons did not reveal where Johnny’s location was.

AB: That’s Noreen Gosh again. Her son Johnny was never found, but Barbara Huggett and Noreen Gosh are both adamant that the campaign had a positive impact.

NG: What it did was promote more awareness so that people were looking. If they saw a child that looked like they were in distress, maybe you questioned whether or not those were the parents.

RM: During the milk carton campaign, the Missing Children Assistance Act was passed. It established a federal program to find missing kids.

BH: Changing the rules for children when they’re missing, not having to wait the hours and days.

AB: And mostly, the milk cartons just got people thinking about kidnapping, that this could happen to your kid.

NG: I have talked to quite a number of adults and they could remember their mom putting the milk carton on the kitchen table saying, “Now, we’re going to go over the rules again.” and they would use the example of the boys on the milk carton.

BH: And make the correlation between that child and their child’s life.

RM: In other words, the faces on the milk cartons scared the hell out of everyone.

AB: Which ultimately led to the campaign’s downfall.

RM: Almost as quickly as it began, the milk carton campaign started by the National Child Safety Council ended. Just two years after the first milk cartons were printed, dairies began to pull the missing kids’ pictures from their side panels.

BH: One reason of course with the cartons is that the industry shifted to plastic.

AB: But dairies also started to get tired of the depressing message.

NG: They took away because there were people that were complaining that they thought it might scare children at the breakfast table.

AB: The famous pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock wrote columns condemning the milk carton
campaign. It was traumatizing, he said, kids shouldn’t have to face that over their Lucky Charms.

PM: They see these missing kids on the milk carton kind of staring at them. That milk cartons almost demands them to have that conversation. Uh, what to do if you see a stranger or a stranger acosts you.

RM: That’s Paul Mokrzycki-Renfro, He’s a historian at the University of Iowa who’s been writing his dissertation on child safety, on the milk carton kids and their effect on us. He believes the milk carton campaign reflected a larger fear that was gripping society at the time: Stranger Danger.

AB: Paul studies the way that child safety was talked about at this time. In the news, on the radio, by politicians; and he says that this fear of Stranger Danger was exploding.

PM: Folks are kicking around these numbers that are just astronomical. Folks are saying there are 1.8 million missing children in the United States and “missing” becomes very closely attached to “abducted by strangers.”

RM: But that just wasn’t true.

AB: Every year, 800.000 kids are reported missing to the authorities. That’s around 2,000 every day, but a report from the Department of Justice found that the number of kids taken by strangers every year is only about 115.

RM: The milk carton campaign led by the National Child Safety Council focused on kids who are kidnapped by strangers, and they were criticized for this. But there were also smaller, more localized campaigns going on that weren’t bound by this rule. It was one of the smaller campaigns that ended up featuring the face of a missing girl named Bonnie Loman.

BL: I wasn’t kidnapped by strangers, I was kidnapped by people that loved me.

AB: Bonnie Loman was kidnapped by her mother when she was 3, after her parents got divorced.

RM: Even though she wasn’t kidnapped by a stranger, Bonnie’s dad had managed to get her on a milk carton.

AB: Bonnie had no idea that she had been kidnapped, but her childhood was pretty strange. After taking Bonnie, her mom and stepdad went Saipan, a tiny island near Guam.

BL: Yeah, yeah, we lived in the woods, um, like in a shack.

RM: After a year in Saipan next was Hawaii, but they were still lying pretty low.

BL: We’ve stayed inside all the time in Hawaii. I recall maybe one or two times being outside.

AB: Finally, they ended up in Colorado. And her mom and stepdad started to relax a bit. The next door neighbors had a bunch of kids, and Bonnie played at their house all the time.

BL: We would play Barbies and you know, I had my little Barbie case and I would bring that over.

RM: Aside from going to her neighbors, Bonnie was hardly ever allowed to leave the house, but on an unusual occasion her step-dad took her to the supermarket. They needed milk.

BL: I just remember like, looking and seeing how many cartons of milk there were. Like, nowadays it’s like, whatever brand of milk would be facing you. Whereas at that time, all of the pictures were facing you. He grabbed the milk and he was like, “Hey do you know who that is? Hey, you’re famous!” and I saw myself and I was like, “Ooh! Is that me?” and he was like, “Hush. Hush, hush, hush.”

RM: Yes, Bonnie actually saw her own face on a milk carton.

AB: Although she had no idea what it meant at the time. Bonnie stepdad bought the milk carton, and when they finished he asked her…

BL: “Do you want it? Do you want to keep it?” and so I remember cutting it out and being like “whoa”, and staring at the picture. My hair was like in a little ponytail on the side, and I was wearing this little dress. And he was like, “Now you gotta keep it in a safe place.” and I must have tossed it in my Barbie case.

AB: Looking back now, Bonnie sees her step dad’s actions as arrogance.

BL: He was so confident in himself that he could show me that, because nothing’s going to happen with it.

AB: But the next time Bonnie was at the neighbor’s house, she left her Barbie case there; with the picture she cut out of her own face on a milk carton.

BL: I remember there were a lot of police showing up, a lot of police showing up.

RM: Within hours of the neighbor finding the picture, she was whisked away and returned to her father. She was 7 at the time.

AB: But their reunion wasn’t easy at first.

BL: (crying) I remember being scared because I didn’t know my dad. And all I wanted to do was be with her; it kind of sucked, you know?

AB: Bonnie is very clear that her mother loved her, but what she didn’t know then was that she had been denied some pretty basic pieces of her childhood.

RM: In the three and a half years she was missing, Bonnie didn’t go to school, she hadn’t learned to read.

BL: I know I didn’t read then because I would have realized that I was missing; because on the picture it actually said “Missing Child” and then my name and the date.

AB: After returning to her dad, Bonnie had a pretty normal life. She started school, went on to college, and eventually became a nurse. She has two kids now; she’s really happy. She’s one of the milk carton campaigns few success stories.

BL: I believe that I am who I am because I was on a milk carton, and I was found, and I had opportunities with my dad growing up that I might not have had with my mom. I was able to live a great life, and I’m grateful for it.

RM: After only 2 years the milk carton campaign had ended, but the faces of missing children were still being printed on all kinds of other things: pizza boxes, plastic grocery bags, utility bills.

AB: Actually, the utility bill campaign went on for ten years; much longer than the milk cartons. But most of us haven’t even heard of it, it didn’t stick the way that the milk carton did. Again here’s Paul Mokrzycki-Renfro, the historian.

PM: It’s one of those tropes with which we’re all familiar, and it’s appeared in novels, films, you know there’s a band called The Milk Carton Kids….

RM: There was something different about seeing a face on the side of a milk carton that really struck a nerve.

PM: There is a sense of familial unity that I think milk helps to author. Maternal nurturance, and also being this kind of item around which people gather around the breakfast table. So, putting missing kids faces on that item was quite deliberate and perhaps the reason why that lives on

Comments (26)

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  1. MsB

    Those milk cartons inspired important conversations and other programs on ‘stranger danger’. 3 times I was almost abducted. 3 times! The ‘penny’ trick, the ‘puppy’ trick, and the ‘I know your mom.’ trick were all attempted. Thanks to school stranger danger programs I was able to see these attempts as scams and avoided abduction. I am grateful.

    1. 99pi

      In this case, Wikipedia is not correct (nor the sources it cites). Patz may have been the first child in a national campaign but not local/regional.

  2. Kellie

    Are Mazlo and Carver covering Minor Threat at the end? Are we friends that just haven’t met yet?
    I love the podcast, keep up the great work, maybe I’ll see you next time I’m on Oakland.

    1. Craig Singer

      Close. Minor Threat adjacent–The Teen Idles. Punk’s not dead, it just goes to bed early.

  3. This story seemed one sided, offering comment only from those involved with the milk carton campaign. An important point was omitted: Did these photos cause kidnappers more quickly and more frequently to kill and dispose of these abducted children before they could be spotted. With these milk carton photos in circulation, the child was an obvious liability to the perpetrator. This might be a big part of why so few milk carton kids were ever recovered.

    1. I was personally acquainted with a kid who ended up on a milk carton. It turned out that he had been killed years before, tragically, so the carton was irrelevant. But since most kidnapping cases involve noncustodial parents, and perpetrators who intend to kill don’t wait around, it seems unlikely that the pictures ever prompted murder.

  4. Bodhi

    “…a fictional novel by Caroline B. Cooney” means that the novel didn’t exist, like “a fictional character.” Novels are by definition fiction, so “fictional novel” is a confusing tautology.

    It’s a fascinating article, though, and it’s tragic to hear that the police wouldn’t begin to investigate a missing child for three days.

  5. :..:..:...

    There is an old-school arcade I go to that still has a photo of a missing kid flash on the screen about every minute. I have no idea how long it has been on that machine.

  6. Lesly

    Omg I read the book the face on the milk carton. And I thought it was all fake but now I know that it is real!

    1. *****

      Anybody who is readin this, the face on the milk carton is really good y’all should read it.

  7. Okay, here’s the deep irony of the milk carton missing-children campaign:
    The dairy industry is predicated on the separation of mother and child.

    In order for a cow to give milk, she must, of course–like humans and other mammals–have a child. But in order for humans to use that milk to fill cartons, her child must be taken from her. (The boys are sold to veal farms unless the dairy has its own veal wing, and the girls are isolated until puberty and then are made to milk as well. They are fed a cheap artificial milk-replacer.)

    It was fascinating to hear someone in this piece talk about cow’s milk as a symbol of nurturing. For a calf, of course it is; it is perfectly designed for that particular mammal’s survival and thriving. But for a cow’s udder to be connected to a machine and a carton–well, it’s the opposite of nurturing.

    Mammals are very hard to raise, so evolutionary biology has filled new mothers and babies–cows and humans alike–with specific hormones to build a profound bond. There is a great deal of footage of people pulling calves away from their mothers, and the footage is harrowing. Cows and calves call for each other for days.

    So, in this context, it does seem laughable for this particular industry to stake a claim to connecting mothers and children.

  8. Funsworth

    They still have faces of missing people on some bottles of milk in the UK; Co-op I think.

  9. Jessica

    This was an interesting episode, but I wish you’d talked about how infrequently children are abducted by strangers. Something like 75% of children are abducted by relatives and acquaintances (majority of kidnappers are noncustodial parents). The milk carton campaign inaccurately inflated the idea of “stranger danger”; maybe that’s why the campaign wasn’t very successful. http://www.parents.com/kids/safety/stranger-safety/child-abduction-facts/

  10. Jessica

    Should have listened until the end of the episode- thanks for addressing the issue of noncustodial parents kidnapping children.

  11. PING

    While the cartons resulted in very few found children, there is no doubt in my mine they prevented many abductions by creating conversations between parents and kids. Having been born in 1980 I vividly remember these and talks and dinner regarding the abductions.

  12. Zeek

    More Boards of Canada, eh? At one minute in, that’s “The Devil is in the Details” – Boards of Canada, album Geogaddi.

  13. Adam Coe

    I’m kind of blown away by how few kids were found as a result of this, given how many people drink milk…contrast this with that Soul Asylum video, they found quite a few through that video as I recall. (In addition, I remember seeing some kind of mini-documentary about it a while back, where apparently a couple of the kids that were found as a result of that video were super angry at the band and the people responsible for putting their faces in the video, as some of them were returned to people that continued to abuse them, which was why they ran away to begin with.)

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