In-Depth: The Facade on the Milk Carton - Milk Week


Image courtesy of the Tutt Library at Colorado College.

At the crossroads of charity, public education, good intentions, and youth literature, is the story of a cause. You’re probably familiar with this cause, whether it’s through childhood memory or simple cultural awareness: a face on a milk carton.

If so then it’s likely that, in your mind, seeing a child’s face on a milk carton may signify a no-brainer noble, no different than when you see posters in supermarkets or bus stops of missing persons no matter their age. But beyond assumptions about victims and perpetrators of childhood abductions is history that may tell us something interesting about where concrete utilitarian ideals and the appearance of good deeds being done divide.

After all, as most school children of the 1990s are probably well aware, wondering about the faces you can see on a milk carton could easily spark the imagination of any literary minds that might be of the people-watching variety. And spark it did. Enter young adult author Caroline B. Cooney, who after being inspired by a similar experience, published the Scholastic book club-classic The Face on the Milk Carton in 1990.

As young adult novels go, The Face on the Milk Carton achieved as much success as any work of the genre could expect in the pre-Harry Potter era. Meaning, it scored its own made for TV movie which today would probably make for remarkable MST3K material. In the grand tradition of writers like R.L. Stine and K.A. Applegate who would tap into a much more devoted readership years later through horror and science-fiction, it was the sort of book read for fun or maybe a book report, but never an assigned read.

The plot tells the story of Janie Johnson, a conflicted yet amicably determined protagonist who wonders whether her current guardians are truly her biological parents after she (you guessed it) sees her childhood image on a milk carton.

If pedestrian assumptions about things that are even remotely famous are to be believed, the entire enterprise appears a necessary, perhaps even vital, instrument in the fight against child abduction. In other words, if it didn’t work then why would there be a TV movie about it?

However, despite the marginal good that faces on milk cartons do merely by raising awareness, they don’t represent an accurate depiction of childhood abduction as an international issue nor its best possible solutions.

That may largely have to do with cultural perception and the obvious influence of the book, to which young adult fiction should owe no greater allegiance to realism than to merely be believable. To Cooney’s credit, she does describe a text-book case (no pun intended) of how the entire enterprise works when it is successful, and who its primary audience is: the abducted children, themselves.

There are also nearly countless other historical incidents that have perpetuated the false public perception that the bulk of childhood abductions come at the hands of strangers. There are volumes written on the impact that the Lindbergh kidnappings of the 1930s had on the public consciousness, never mind how we come to think of victims like Elizabeth Smart today.

Despite the disproportional media coverage of these stories, the truth of the matter is that strangers represent a distinct minority among those who commit these crimes. In fact, for a far greater number of childhood abduction cases, the perpetrator is a parent of the child, usually going through a divorce or some separation from the other, and thus holding the child to some degree against their will (which is complicated, to say the least).

Of course, these frequently non-violent plotlines of basic domestic dispute just can’t grab headlines like the story of a young, blonde, innocent 14-year-old who endures unending sexual abuse for eight months before her eventual escape from captivity, like Smart’s did nearly ten years ago. Instead they become, as do so many corners of general inadequate childcare, the rather unwelcome jurisdiction of the state.

Though one of the few pieces of legislation that Congress has been able to pass with relative ease during President Obama’s term of office is the Missing Children’s Assistance Reauthorization Act of 2013. While the potential role of government is scrutinized in nearly every other pressing issue of national importance (healthcare, immigration, you name it) both the Ted Cruzes and Bernie Sanderses of Washington can seem to agree that searching for kidnapped kids the right way is worth at least $40 million a year of public funds. The Roll Call vote in the House alone came back with an astounding 407-2 in favor amid perhaps the most divided Congress in recent American history.

Then again, regardless of how we feel about illegal immigrants or the uninsured, who doesn’t want to help missing kids? As a political gesture, it’s about as electorally sound as increasing penalties for child molesters.

The recipient of $32 million of that $40 million per year is the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a nonprofit founded by Congress in the middle of the slash-and-cut Reagan era.

You’re probably expecting me to tell you right now that the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children is the organization behind faces on milk cartons, but they in fact are not. That would be the National Childhood Safety Council.

Founded in 1955 to face the epidemic of childhood safety accidents (as in, sticking one’s finger in an electrical socket), the organization originally began as the Police Safety Service. Switching their name soon after, the NCSC provides 300+ different pieces of educational material about dangers to children (many including the face of their mascot, Safetypup) and among these are faces on milk cartons. They can boast to being the “oldest and largest 501 (c)(3) federal tax-exempt, nonprofit charitable organization entirely dedicated to the safety of children.”

While “child safety” is a pretty broad category for nonprofits, if that isn’t obvious enough from the broad number of issues addressed by the NCSC’s literature, it would still be difficult to say what organization is the most cost-efficient or effective.

Though there’s no difficulty in otherwise questioning the integrity of the NCSC. It has a one-star (of four) rating on Charity Navigator, awarded for questionable financial practices and overall lacking transparency. Specifically, it is difficult to find out whether the organization provides or receives loans from related parties, or how they determine their CEO compensation, but the antiquity of the NCSC website could partly to blame as opposed to outright negligence or deceitful practices.

On the other hand, allocating 15.3 percent of expenses toward Administration with only 43.1 percent going toward programming can’t be blamed on your online storefront. And while the debacle surrounding the launch may give Americans somewhat unreasonable expectations when it comes to the capital it takes to run a non-commercial website, an organization that spends $412,645 of its $2 million-plus operating budget could probably get a website that doesn’t look like it predates Myspace.

By contrast, the Congressionally-born National Center for Missing & Exploited Children garners four stars from Charity Navigator and, according to the watchdog, exemplifies transparency and financial solvency. Case in point: the organization spends a mere 0.95 percent of their budget in administration (at nearly $100,000 less than what it costs for the NCSC) and allows for 92.6 percent of their budget to go toward programming.

Another big difference between both the NCSC and the NCMEA that is worth mentioning is how they get their funding. One hundred percent of the budget for the team behind faces on milk cartons comes in the form of contributions and gifts, where as the bulk of the NCMEA’s funds (77 percent) come from the tax payer in the form of federal grants.

Last week, I wrote about a recent episode of Real Time with Bill Maher in which the comedian aligned atheism and statism, inferring that support for the so-called ‘nanny state’ should truly be the prerogative of Christianity, over say, conscientious interpersonal relations and face-to-face generosity.

Though if there’s a case to be made in regards to how technocracy (or, ahem, Big — but effective — Government) can better allocate resources to fill a need that the current body of American philanthropists can’t support on their own, here it is.

With the broad brush of the federal budget (along with generous donors), the NCMEA can afford to engage in the kind of larger, long-term programming projects that a law-enforcement issue like child abductions deserves. For instance, they provide a 24-hour-a-day hotline to connect families with law enforcement. In 1999, they conducted the “most recent, comprehensive national study” for the number of missing children — a study that showed that the number of children abducted by family members nearly quadruples the number abducted by strangers.

Programming projects like faces on milk cartons may not necessarily do harm. The inoffensive and informative materials from the NCSC on childhood safety are distributed in public schools with no cost to taxpayers. But by comparison, what’s doing the most good?