My 28-year-old son was an infant when Minnesota’s innocence was snatched along with an 11-year-old boy in St. Joseph, Minn. My son, like other children his age, grew up under constant supervision — with continual media updates about Jacob Wetterling reminding parents what could happen to their children if they suspended their constant vigilance even for a moment.
A year after my son was born, I joined the Jacob Wetterling Foundation, now the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center (JacobWetterlingResourceCenter on Facebook). I had the privilege of serving on the board with Patty and Jerry Wetterling, who were devoted not only to finding their son, but to making sure the tragedy they endured was not shared by other Minnesota families. They spoke tirelessly at schools and community meetings on the topic of keeping kids safe. And, eventually, the foundation played a key role in implementing sex offender registration laws.
Most Minnesotans old enough to remember the day Jacob was taken can practically recite the story word for word.
So what more can we learn from this heartbreaking tale? The biggest lesson was mentioned in the Star Tribune’s Page One story on Sept. 4 announcing that Jacob’s remains had been found, according to the Resource Center: “The Wetterlings had a choice to walk into bitterness and anger or to walk into a light of what could be, a light of hope. Their choice changed the world.”
Indeed, the Wetterlings have led a movement that has changed not only how parents and school leaders view child safety, but how we track and treat sex offenders. They’ve demonstrated that when evildoers operate in secrecy, evil flourishes. When brought to light, evil withers. Maintaining strong sex offender registration laws, and placing the safety concerns of community members — especially children — over the rights of sex offenders, is critical to maintaining safe communities for raising children.
Not only is the Wetterlings’ work on promoting child safety inspirational, I believe that it has been healing for them as well. On Sunday during church I wondered: What is the best way to support the Wetterling family now? Beyond our prayers and well wishes, the Wetterlings deserve our support of the institutions and initiatives that will keep our children safe.
Patty has worked as a leader and eventually as the board chair of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. She also was recently appointed to the clergy review board for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. And while Patty is typically in the limelight, I think Jerry’s passion for this topic is equally strong but more private.
Here are excerpts of a letter Patty wrote to Jacob that was published earlier this year on the Resource Center’s Facebook page and by local and national media on what would have been his 38th birthday:
… That’s pretty amazing 26 years later. People care. There are more good people than bad in the world and people still hope.
… I am hoping and praying that people will remember you on February 17 and we ask that everyone hug their kids a little tighter, tell them that they love them and take time to play a game or read books. My wish is also that parents will support agencies that help to find our missing kids and help other victims …
In that letter are clues to what we can do to support the Wetterlings from this point forward. No one wanted Jacob’s story to end as it did, but even now, we must do what we can to keep Jacob’s Hope alive.
Lynn Ingrid Nelson, of White Bear Lake, served on the Jacob Wetterling Foundation board from 1989 to 1993.