Bonnie Lohman was abducted at age three. Her father searched for her for years, including adding her picture on the “missing kids on a milk carton” campaign. Her abductors were actually her mother and stepfather, and at age seven, Bonnie had no recollection of her father or her kidnapping. So she was shocked to see her own face on milk cartons in grocery stores while shopping with her stepfather.
Seeing Her Own Face on a Milk Carton
Bonnie didn’t know the significance of the milk carton but she wanted to keep it. Her stepfather agreed on the condition that she kept it hidden. However, Bonnie’s neighbors discovered the truth after Bonnie accidentally left the carton with a bag of toys at their house. They called the police and Bonnie reunited with her father. Her story was one of the successes from the milk carton kids program. 
This program was developed by the U.S. National Child Safety Council to create awareness about missing children. Despite the increased public awareness, it wasn’t always successful. It has since been replaced by the Amber Alert System. It began with an issue known as child-snatching. Unlike “true kidnapping,” child-snatching occurred when noncustodial parents abducted their own children from parents with legal custody, like in Bonnie’s case.
Many police departments were hesitant to intervene in these cases, referring to them as “domestic disagreements”. So advocacy groups began to distribute pamphlets with pictures of the children to schools because the noncustodial parent would have enrolled the child there under a new name. Later, this campaign was broadened to include all missing kids. Then it went from pamphlets to milk cartons, grocery bags, and pizza boxes.
The Other Milk Carton Kids
Six-year-old Etan Patz was the first child to have his photo on a milk carton. He had disappeared in 1979 while walking by himself to the bus stop for the first time. The stop was only two blocks from his house but he never reached the bus. He was missing for five years before his picture appeared on the cartons. Unfortunately, he was declared legally dead in 2001. His body was never found but in 2017, Pedro Hernandez was convicted for his kidnaping and murder.
There was also Johnny Gosch, who went missing during his paper run in 1982. His parents knew something was wrong when their neighbors called to tell them their papers were late. However, the police did not declare it a kidnapping because there was no ransom note. So they waited 72 hours to declare him missing and begin to search. Gosch’s delivery wagon was found two blocks away from his home, but the boy himself was never found. In 1984, the Johnny Gosch Bill was passed in Iowa, which requires police authorities to investigate missing children cases immediately instead of the previous protocol of waiting 72 hours.
The End of the Campaign
One of the last faces on the milk carton program was Molly Bish, who disappeared in 2000. At that point, the program had barely been used in the last ten years, but Molly’s parents were desperate to find their 16-year-old daughter. She had vanished while working as a lifeguard. So they took every opportunity they could to find her, including posting her picture on milk cartons. Sadly, Molly’s remains were found three years later only 8 km from where she was last spotted. There were no arrests made for this murder.
The program had unofficially ended when the Amber Alert system started up. In hindsight, the milk carton kids campaign was not quite successful, with many unsolved cases and no real data to track these successes. It also garnered other criticisms, including how it prioritized missing white children over races. Also noteworthy, the milk cartons tended to terrify children at the breakfast table, who felt distressed about getting kidnapped themselves. 
Keep Reading: The 6 Most Recognizable Help Signals Everyone Should Know, Including Children
- “Missing children: What happened to the milk carton kids?” New Zealand Herald. Shona Hendley. February 24, 2019
- “Why Did Missing Children Start Showing Up on Milk Cartons?” Slate. Brian Palmer. April 20, 2012
- “When Bad News Was Printed on Milk Cartons.” The Atlantic. Adrienne LaFrance. February 14, 2017