Others’ opinion: Wetterlings changed a culture

Published 9:25 am Thursday, September 8, 2016

St. Cloud Times,

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency

With the sunrise Saturday, a tortuous Central Minnesota mystery that started on the dark night of Oct. 22, 1989, came to an end. The remains of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling, abducted about 27 years ago in St. Joseph, were found.

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Finally, Patty and Jerry Wetterling — and all of Central Minnesota — have the horrific answer to a crime that didn’t just change a family and a community; it changed a culture and, yes, a country.

Ask any local person old enough to remember the initial days, weeks and months after Jacob disappeared.

They will tell you about how parents and grandparents suddenly never let their kids leave their sight. How schools, churches and neighbors didn’t just turn on porch lights for Jacob, but kept close tabs on kids they knew — and cast suspicious eyes toward adults they didn’t.

And, if they are honest, they will tell you that those sidelong glances continue to this day — as do making sure kids you know are close by.

Yet amid the darkness that enveloped first this area, then the state and eventually the nation, the Wetterlings, especially Patty, found the strength to generate good from this unimaginable nightmare.

Always wrapped in the hope for Jacob’s return, the Wetterlings championed ways to protect children. About four months after the abduction, they formed the Jacob Wetterling Foundation. Then came Jacob Wetterling Resource Center, which in 2010 merged with the National Child Protection Training Center.

The capstone of the Wetterlings’ efforts came in 1994 with the passage of the federal Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act. This legislation requires all states to form registries of offenders convicted of sexually violent offenses or offenses against children. In addition, states must verify annually for at least 10 years the addresses of those offenders.

Since its passage, lawmakers have fortified it with Megan’s Law, which requires more public disclosure about sex offenders, and the Adam Walsh Child Protection Act, which classifies sex offenders into three levels based on their crimes.

But it was Wetterling’s unrelenting desire to find Jacob and her passion to help children that blazed the trail for better protecting children. And ultimately changed a culture.

Such a change, though, is of little solace in these again-dark days after the news about Jacob’s remains. But the past 27 years of courage, persistence and action shown by the Wetterlings in their push to find Jacob and protect children reminds us all how to move through our darkest days