Every parent has known the moment: After a day at school, or a trip to the store or even a visit in the neighborhood, a child fails to return home at the appointed hour. Fortunately for most parents, just as the imagined horrors start building in the mind, the errant youngster walks innocently through the door. And yet some don't. The hours that follow, with frantic calls going out in all directions, lead to the unthinkable, unacceptable fact that their child has disappeared. Surprisingly, nobody knows how often it happens, or precisely why. Every year hundreds of thousands of children run away from home, an estimated 50,000 are taken by parents involved in custody fights and some 150 are kidnapped, but no one government agency keeps track of those who are snatched for all the other reasons. Efforts to find such children often seem as confused as the reasons they disappeared in the first place.

No one is more familiar with that helpless feeling than Stanley and Julie Patz, whose son Etan, 6, vanished from the streets of New York on May 25, 1979 while walking alone for the first time to the school bus, just two blocks from home. "People get raped or murdered, and those crimes, as horrible as they are, at least are contained in time," says Stanley Patz, 39. "In this crime there was a beginning, but there is no end. We are faced with a very real question: Is our son dead or alive? Etan's problem could have ended two years ago—but ours persists."

The children on these six pages are a few of perhaps thousands who are now missing, and, in his own anger, Stanley Patz charges that society just doesn't care. "The search for missing children just isn't important unless it's your child," he says.

Even so, the Patzes have been luckier than some parents. Etan's disappearance has been given wide publicity and triggered one of the most extensive manhunts in New York City history. But every lead has ended in frustration though two detectives are still working—full-time—on the case today. "There's no crime scene and no witnesses," says Detective Donald Tasik, of the Missing Persons Bureau. "We have to rely on publicity to get leads." Stan and Julie, 39, have considered sending a flyer with Etan's picture to every elementary school in the country—but the cost was prohibitive. Now, their voices are tainted by despair. "We can't even get posters into every police station," says Julie.

Quite naturally, the Patzes refuse to give up hope. They have published Etan's picture in Search, an Engle-wood Cliffs, N.J. catalog of missing children that is circulated nationally to police, hospitals and social agencies. They have registered with Child Find, Inc., a New Paltz, N.Y. organization which circulates a toll-free number across the country that any abducted child can call for help. And the Patzes have finally overcome their qualms about raising money for a reward fund for Etan's return. "We worried because it might encourage someone to take another child and hold the public hostage," Julie concedes. "We still don't like the idea, but it's the only thing we have left to do."

Julie argues that America needs an official missing children clearinghouse: "It would have information shared on pornography rings, sex offenders and child molesters and instant access to information for all police agencies, large and small." Stan would add universal fingerprinting. "Why shouldn't schools use a computer to make sure a kid belongs to the person who claims to be the guardian?" he asks. Both support a bill introduced in Congress this year to facilitate entry of missing children's names in the FBI's crime information computers.

The Patzes are parents of two other children—Shira, 11, and Ari, 5, and Etan's disappearance has drastically altered their lives. "We've been wiped out financially," Stan, a commercial photographer, admits. Immediately after Etan disappeared, Stan stopped getting free-lance assignments. Some business associates still avoid him. Julie has had difficulty finding work in her field, child day care. "I am the woman who lost her child—not the mother whose son was kidnapped," she says. "There's an automatic doubt. If I could be that irresponsible with my own child, parents think, what about theirs?" The month after Etan disappeared, the Patzes kept a promise to Shira and invited a dozen of her friends to a 10th-birthday party. Not one child came. Despite understandable strains, the Patzes' marriage has survived the ordeal of Etan's disappearance. Says Stan, "We have avoided the guilt trip. There's a lot of pent-up anger within us, but it's aimed at someone who did something terrible to us." Adds Julie, with quiet strength: "We keep going because if our son is alive, then he needs a family to come back to. We don't want the rest of the family to be victimized any more than they have been already."

A 9-year-old who was everybody's buddy

Larry Perry's life was never easy. The 9-year-old was moderately retarded and from a broken home. He lived with his maternal grandparents in a cramped trailer. The family eked out an existence on $434 a month in social aid and odd-job income. But Larry, by all accounts, was likable. "He speaks to anybody he sees," smiles grandmother Mary Perry, 43. "Everybody was his buddy."

One of Larry's "buddies" may have betrayed him on May 22, 1979, when he walked into the woods near the trailer in Dumphries, Va.—probably to engage in his favorite sport, chasing the four-wheel-drive vehicles that race along the dirt roads in the forest. Police believe that a heavyset white man with a bulbous nose may have abducted Larry; they suspect that same man of molesting the boy and a school chum behind a nearby motel just a few days before.

Police have used dogs, helicopters, psychologists, hypnotists and even psychics in their futile search—but Mary says they haven't done enough. "They don't do as much for people who are poor as they do for the ones who've got money," she claims. "If I had money, I'd get a private detective." Instead, Mary Perry is left to worry incessantly about the little boy she raised like a son. "You always have in the back of your mind that, if this man did take Larry and molest these children, Larry might be going through this every day," she says through her tears. "That's pretty hard to handle."

An angry father threatens revenge

Like many small children, Tiffany Papesh feared being separated from her family. She once asked, "Daddy, what would happen if somebody ever took me?" "Tiffany," Frank Papesh said, "I would find them. This world is not big enough for them to hide in."

Sadly, the world is big enough so far. On June 13, 1980 Tiffany, then 8, walked from her family's home in the Maple Heights suburb of Cleveland to a store just 400 steps away to buy hamburger buns. She was wearing blue shorts and a red T-shirt with the words "Let's Face It, I'm Cute" on the front. She never returned. "Just not knowing is a tremendous weight," Papesh says. "If she were dead then I could go to a cemetery and put a flower there. Where do I go and put a flower? She could be alive someplace being tortured, used for sexual purposes, God knows what. The imagination is hell."

So is reality. One of Papesh's former bosses offered a $50,000 reward, which added to his anguish. "I began to worry about the other kids going out in public. The creep might think if this guy's got $50,000 he'll pay it for another kid," says Frank. Tiffany's mother, Lois, from whom Frank is divorced, came from Florida to help Papesh and their son, Ricky, 15, in the search. Frank has two sons by his second wife, Debbie, and after Paul was born last February she had nightmares for months. "I won't even trust a babysitter," she says. Frank, meanwhile, bought a .357 Magnum and a .38 special and taught both Debbie and Ricky how to fire them. When he speaks of Tiffany's abductor Papesh now talks in chilling terms: "If they ever catch that creep who got my daughter, God help him. He'd better hope the police get to him before I do."

A boy's disappearance raises dark questions

Claude and LoraLee Petersen learned a bitter fact when their son, Kim, disappeared from their South Salt Lake home last November: In missing child cases, suspicion frequently turns on the parents. "I feel more like a suspect than a victim," Claude, 32, an electrical engineer, admits.

Police frequently ask parents of missing children to submit to lie detector tests. Stan and Julie Patz, for instance, took them. But polygraphs are notoriously unreliable. Claude Petersen believed he had passed, but after the results were studied, he was asked to come in for another session. On a lawyer's advice, Petersen refused. That triggered a suspicion in the mind of South Salt Lake detective Jim Tingey, who already felt uneasy with Petersen's demeanor, although he has divulged no evidence to support his feeling. "I have two boys," says Tingey, "and if my son had been kidnapped, I would have camped on the police doorstep."

Tingey's thesis flies in the face of the only known circumstances surrounding Kim's disappearance. The Petersens say that he left home last Nov. 9 to sell some roller-skate wheels to a man he had met in a roller rink. Eyewitnesses have stated that on the day before the disappearance, the boy was seen in a pinball arcade with two unidentified older men. One young witness says he saw Kim with a man in a silver-gray Chevrolet Camaro the day after he vanished.

Claude admits that he had his troubles with his son. "Kim is a great kid but hard to get along with sometimes," he says. "He was too smart for his britches." Adds LoraLee: "He could manipulate a classroom and a teacher." Kim, a bright student, attended a special class for children with adjustment problems. The Petersens concede that their marriage has not been without rough spots. Claude and LoraLee were divorced in 1979—but remarried just five weeks later. Still, they are aghast at the suggestion that they might have any connection with their son's disappearance. "When the police have no place to turn, they turn to the parents," LoraLee charges angrily. Until Kim's case is solved, though, the Petersens seem destined to live with their double agony.

The happy ending all parents pray for—a safe return

Parents of missing children know hope as a constant companion. For most of them, though, happiness is a distant dream. The story of Leonardo and Barbara Rodriguez and their daughter, Jeana, then 11, began as an all too predictable, desperate case. Jeana, a sixth-grade student in San Jose, Calif., disappeared on Feb. 27 of this year after getting off her school bus just 100 yards away from her family's $150,000 house.

Police at first dismissed Jeana as a runaway and waited three days before beginning a search. At home, Jeana's brother, Leo, 7, worried that he would be taken next. Her father, Leonardo, 34, a computer technician, drove 400 miles, circulating posters of Jeana throughout the San Francisco Bay area. But Jeana's mother, Barbara, 36, a computer-parts assembler for IBM, took her daughter's disappearance—and its grisly aftermath—hardest of all. After hearing a San Jose psychic proclaim that Jeana was dead and her body had been consumed by vultures, Mrs. Rodriguez took an overdose of painkillers in a futile attempt at self-destruction. "If my daughter was dead, I wanted to be dead too," she says. By summer she needed five pills a night to sleep. "My husband didn't want me to be around because I was crying, and I thought he didn't care because he was unemotional," she says. Leonardo and Barbara drifted apart, recriminations filled the air, and, on Aug. 4, Barbara decided on a separation after nearly 14 years of marriage. "My bags were packed," she recalls. "I didn't want to be a family anymore. It was just too painful."

What happened next beggars belief. That very day Jeana suddenly walked through the front door of the family's four-bedroom house. She told her parents, and then the police, of being grabbed by a man near the house, shoved into a truck, and held captive in a cinder-block dungeon beneath his house. The house was just six miles from Jeana's home. Several weeks later the man allowed her into an upstairs room. There she surreptitiously memorized his name from an address label of a magazine. After 157 days of imprisonment and sexual abuse, the man abruptly agreed to let Jeana go, blindfolding her and returning her to the spot where she was abducted. Within hours police arrested George J. Dailey, 36, a 290-pound sewage-plant worker. He pleaded guilty last week to kidnapping, child molestation and various sexual offenses against Jeana and seven other children, and will be sentenced Oct. 9.

Jeana and her family still grapple with their own futures. Barbara confides that she was sexually assaulted when she was 15, and memories of that experience fuel her worries about Jeana's mental health. "I want to make it easier for her than it was for me." Jeana's return has given new hope to her parents, who now think their marriage will survive. But Jeana, who gained 15 pounds and grew three inches during captivity, may be proof that as vulnerable as children are, they can also be resourceful and resilient. "I wish this never happened," Jeana says. "But I'm going to act like nothing happened and go on with my life as usual."