A Child’s Unfortunate Legacy: The Cultural Impact of Jacob Wetterling

Twenty-seven years is a long time.  This is something the Wetterling family knows all too well.  As of this writing it hasn’t even been a week since the remains of their son, Jacob, were found.  Jacob was abducted at gunpoint in 1989.  He and his younger brother Trevor, along with a friend of theirs, had ridden their bicycles out to a convenience store to rent a video on the night of October 22, 1989.  As they were leaving, a masked gunman came out of a driveway.  He ordered the boys to throw their bikes in the ditch and lie face down on the ground.  After asking their ages, the man picked Jacob and told the other two to run and not look back or else they would be shot.

This was the last time Jacob was ever seen alive.

Fast-forward twenty-seven years and Daniel Heinrich, a prime suspect in the kidnapping even back then (he was questioned and a DNA sample was taken back in 1990), apparently decided to cooperate with authorities and led them to a field about thirty miles away from Jacob’s home.

The remains were discovered on September 1st.

On September 3rd, the world knew.  Jacob had been found.

As of right now a lot of the details surrounding this are still just coming out, so I expect we’ll hear a lot about the story in the coming days and weeks.  But that’s not really what I want to talk about today.

Even those who don’t know the details of the Jacob Wetterling case have likely heard of it.  It’s a story I have had an awareness of for most of my life, even if I didn’t really understand why it was so significant.  Jacob’s abduction made him an unfortunate celebrity, as many people pitched in to help comfort the Wetterling family during the initial painful months following his disappearance as well as assist in the search efforts.  But the question is why.  Why do we remember Jacob Wetterling so well over two decades after his disappearance?  Why were we holding out hope for him for so long?  The answer is simple.

What happened to Jacob Wetterling changed the way we deal with sex offenders in this country.

Four months after his disappearance, Jacob’s parents created the Jacob Wetterling Foundation, an advocacy group for children’s safety.  And in 1994, the Jacob Wetterling Act was passed (full name: Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act), which was the first law to create a state sex-offender registry.  You know how today you can go to certain websites, put in your zip code, and see how many registered sex offenders live in your area?  You know how the news always reports when a sex offender moves in to a new area?  The seeds for this were all planted back in 1989 with Jacob’s kidnapping.

But even more so, Jacob Wetterling changed the way parents raised their children.  He changed the way I was raised.  Jacob was kidnapped in October of 1989.  And almost exactly six months later, in April of 1990, I was born.  I was born into a world still reeling from the pain of Jacob’s disappearance.  So understandably, the dynamics of childhood had dramatically shifted.  Fear was rampant at that time as parents couldn’t help but wonder, “what if it happened to my child?”

I often hear older people and even people among my own generation gripe that parents these days are too overprotective.  And while I think that is true in a lot of ways, it is also understandable.  Think about it.  It was cases like Jacob’s that bred this protectiveness, this concern with children’s safety.  It was the nagging “what if” questions.  It was this sudden awareness that the world has callous and unrepentant people who will snatch away a child without a second thought.  All of this has been in the works since the beginning of the 1990’s.

I remember a news story in the last couple of years about this controversy over a couple of parents.  They were getting flak because they let their children walk a mile from the park to their house by themselves.  You may scoff.  You may shake your head.  You may complain that this attitude is what’s wrong with the country today (along with numerous other things).  But the simple fact of the matter is that unless you were raising a child during that time, unless you have actually been a parent, you don’t truly understand that mindset.  Sure, it’s a little ridiculous to get all bent out of shape over how someone else raises their kid, but unless you’ve been there you run the risk of appearing like an arrogant jerk.  I don’t even truly understand it because by the time I was old enough to grasp how the world can change so suddenly, the Jacob Wetterling case was a mere echo of the past, a story without an ending.

And now, that ending has been written.  Jacob’s parents can finally find some sense of closure.

In the end, all we can really do is face what happened and move forward.  And that’s something the Wetterlings know as well.  They’ve spent the last twenty-seven years fighting to change the world, fighting to ensure that what happened to their son, what happened to them, doesn’t happen to another family.  They created the Jacob Wetterling Foundation.  They advocated for children’s safety.  Patty Wetterling, Jacob’s mother, even ran for Congress twice: once in 2004, and once in 2006.  She lost both times, but that didn’t dampen her resolve.

Just yesterday, at the news station where I work, we ran an interview with a psychologist who was studying the Jacob Wetterling case and Daniel Heinrich.  And he said that the thing that surprised him the most about it was just how resilient the Wetterlings were, how despite all the pain they had felt and all the old wounds that were being reopened, they still remained as strong as they could.  Their hearts may be broken, but they are not.  And this is what I think is most important to understand about the situation.  We can sit there and gripe about how the world is different from when we were growing up.  We can complain and shake our heads at how people raise their children nowadays, what with the Ipads and the cellphones and all that.  But I think that unless we truly understand the context in which all of these things are happening, then all we have is our outdated ideas of how the world should work.

Things will change.  It’s best to just accept that and try to steer that change in the right direction.  Not just for ourselves, but for those who will come after us.


Well that’s all I have for this week.  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

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