It's a nightmare scenario that no parent ever wants to think about: having a child disappear. Thousands of kids are reported missing every year, but thankfully, the vast majority of them are found safely and quickly. Some are runaways who head back home after a short time. Others are caught up in bitter custody disputes, and are snatched away by a desperate parent before being returned home. Some were never really missing at all, but were reported to be after a miscommunication with their parent or caregiver. A tragic few, however, are never seen or heard from again.
These are the cases that haunt the families of the missing, the detectives who search frantically for them, and the public that waits and prays for good news. They don't happen very often, but when they do, they strike fear into the hearts of moms and dads everywhere. Parents who weren't even born yet when Etan Patz disappeared still see his face when they're deciding whether to give their child more independence. They remember the story of Madeleine McCann when they're considering whether their child is old enough to stay home alone. They may even think of Baby Lisa Irwin when they're locking up their homes at night.
Despite the attention many of these stories received at the time they unfolded, nearly all of them remain unsolved. Though some have gone cold, many are still actively being investigated. The families of these children are largely still waiting for justice, and hoping to be reunited with them some day.
15 Etan Patz
There's a reason so many people know Etan Patz's face, decades after he disappeared: he was the first missing child to ever have his picture printed on a milk carton. Back in 1979, Etan was walking to the bus stop to go to school when he vanished without a trace. He was just 6-years-old at the time. He's never been seen since, and his body has never been found.
Though his case first made headlines almost 40 years ago, it took until early this year for a killer to be brought to justice. After two trials, the first of which ended with a hung jury, a man named Pedro Hernandez was convicted in Etan's kidnapping and murder. Hernandez had originally confessed to the crime, but later recanted his story and maintained his innocence throughout the trial. He was apparently a friend of the boy's babysitter. Hernandez is now facing 25 years to life in prison.
14 Adam Walsh
Adam Walsh was also just 6-years-old when he disappeared. He was at a Florida mall with his mother in 1981 when he vanished without a trace. A massive search ensued but there was no sign of the boy until two weeks later, when two men out fishing discovered his head in a canal.
Even as they coped with the ultimate tragedy, his parents John and Reve Walsh began working almost immediately to both find their son's killer and to protect other children from being brutalized. You might recognize John Walsh's name as the long time host of "America's Most Wanted", which helped lead to the capture of hundreds of fugitives. John Walsh also helped found the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which works to bring endangered kids home. The Walsh family took their pain and turned it into something that made a huge impact on the country. Sadly though, no one was ever convicted in Adam's murder, though police said in 2008 that a man who died in prison was the likely killer.
13 Kyron Horman
7-year-old Kyron Horman was dropped off at school by his stepmother Terri Horman one day in June 2010, excited about a science fair he was taking part in that day. But despite being spotted by witnesses inside the building, the little boy apparently never made it to his homeroom class that morning. By the end of the school day, a search was underway— one that would become the largest ever in Oregon's history.
Though Terri Horman has long maintained that she had nothing to do with the boy's disappearance and has gone on TV many times to profess her innocence, Kyron's parents are among those who suspect she knows what really happened to their son. Mom Desiree Young and dad Kaine Horman said that Terri failed multiple lie-detector tests. While filing for divorce, Kaine also accused Terri of plotting to murder him. Kyron's whereabouts remain unknown to this day.
12 The Lyons Sisters
Sheila Lyon was just 12-years-old and her sister Katherine just 10 when the two girls set off together for a fun day at the mall back in 1975. They would never make it home. Friends spotted the girls multiple times within the mall, with one child telling police that she saw a man staring intently at the two girls. Despite a massive search and a widespread investigation at the time, none of the many leads that came in ever panned out and the girls were never found.
But in 2013, detectives in the Washington D.C. area took a fresh look at the cold case, and it seems they may have cracked it. Police and prosecutors now believe a man named Lloyd Welch abducted and killed the girls, possibly with the help of his uncle. Welch is set to go on trial in Virginia later this year for the murders.
11 Sabrina Aisenberg
4-month-old Sabrina Aisenberg was put down to sleep in her crib one night in November 1997. By the next morning, she had disappeared without a trace. Her mother Marlene Aisenberg told police that the baby was there at midnight, but gone by the time she checked on her just before 7 a.m. Marlene and her husband believe that an intruder kidnapped the girl, possibly entering the home through an unlocked door. But the couple came under fire themselves, and were ensnared in the police investigation after their home was bugged.
Prosecutors never charged them in their daughter's disappearance, but the Aisenbergs were indicted on charges of lying to investigators and accused of profiting off of the tragedy. They were eventually cleared, but there hasn't been much further movement in the case. The Aisenbergs believe that their daughter is alive and being raised somewhere by her kidnapper, but she hasn't been seen since the night she vanished.
10 Lisa Irwin
The case of Lisa Irwin bears a striking resemble to that of Sabrina Aisenberg. The girl dubbed "Baby Lisa" by the media was just under a year old when she disappeared from her crib in 2011. Her mother Deborah Bradley put Lisa to bed and then told police she had a few drinks, possibly enough to have blacked out. By the time the girl's father Jeremy Irwin got home from working a late shift at around 3 a.m., she was already gone. He told police that a window screen appeared to have been pushed in, and a couple of cell phones were missing from the home.
Police traced a call made on of those phones to a transient passing through the area, but ultimately that lead didn't pan out. Some suspicion did fall on Bradley due to the fact that she was the only parent home at the time, but she maintains her innocence and her hope that Baby Lisa will be found someday.
9 Asha Degree
Asha Degree was just 9-years-old when she disappeared from her North Carolina home in the middle of the night in February, 2000. She shared a bedroom with her brother, who reported hearing her move around but thinking she was just tossing and turning in her sleep. But police believe that for reasons unknown, Asha left her home that night on her own, taking with her a backpack, some clothing, and a few other belongings.
She was then spotted walking along a highway around 3 or 4 in the morning, but hasn't been seen or heard from since. There was some speculation that a book the girl had read in school about a boy who leaves home to go off an adventure may have in someway contributed to her own departure. But despite the fact that she may have left by choice, police believe that at some point she ran into trouble and foul play is suspected.
8 Caylee Anthony
Her mother Casey Anthony may have been convicted in the court of public opinion, but in reality no one has ever been found guilty in the death of Caylee Anthony and her case remains unsolved. Two-year-old Caylee was reported missing in July, 2008. The next morning, police detained her mother and accused her of neglect of a child and giving false statements to investigators. She told police that her daughter had vanished along with her babysitter, which turned out to be untrue.
Caylee's body was found 6 months after her disappearance, and her mother eventually stood trial for her murder. While prosecutors charged that Casey Anthony had suffocated her little girl (pointing to Anthony's computer searches on the topic), the defense tried to argue that Caylee had drowned accidentally and that Casey's only crime was panicking and covering it up. Jurors found her not guilty, and sadly we may never know what really happened between the mother and daughter.
7 Madeleine McCann
Madeleine McCann was just 3-years-old when her parents might have made a deadly mistake. The McCann family was on vacation in Portugal in 2007 when parents Kate and Gerry left Madeleine and her younger twin siblings asleep in their rented room while they went to eat dinner at a bar less than 500 feet away. By the time they returned, the girl had vanished. The case became a global sensation, dominating headlines around the world for months on end.
But despite a massive investigation and countless leads, Madeleine has still never been found. People have speculated on many different possibilities, including that the little girl may have been the victim of a burglary gone wrong or that she was taken by a child trafficking ring. Though there are still no answers, the case is still actively being investigated and her parents are still hopeful that they'll be reunited with their daughter one day.
6 The Lindbergh Baby
The kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby was dubbed "The Crime of the Century" for a reason. The son of famed pilot Charles Lindbergh— the first man to ever fly non-stop between New York and Paris— was snatched from his crib in 1932. Just a few hours after putting the baby down to sleep, his nurse realized that he was missing. In his place was a ransom note demanding $50,000. Though the ransom was paid, the baby was sadly later found dead. The FBI had 5,000 agents on the hunt for the murderer, and in 1934 a man named Bruno Hauptmann was arrested.
The ransom money proved to be his downfall— it was paid out in $10 gold certificates, and a sharp-eyed gas station manager noticed when Hauptmann filled up his tank with one. Police tracked him down and found the bulk of the ransom unspent, just sitting in his garage. There has been some speculation that Hauptmann had an accomplice or even that he was set up for the crime, but he was ultimately executed in 1936.
5 JonBenet Ramsay
JonBenét Ramsay was just 6 years old when she was found dead inside her family's Boulder, Colorado home on the day after Christmas, 1996. She had been reported missing just a few hours before her body was eventually discovered in the basement. She had been sexually assaulted. For many people, pictures of the blonde-haired, blue-eyed little girl in her beauty pageant regalia were their first exposure to the world of child beauty competitions.
For years, many suspected one or both of her parents were somehow involved in JonBenét's death. The two were cleared of any wrongdoing, but it took until 2008 to do so. A man named John Mark Karr came forward in 2006 to say that he had been with the little girl when she died, and that it was accident. But police said the confession was false after Karr's wife disproved it. The case remains open and unsolved.
4 Timmothy Pitzen
The only person who may be able to provide answers about the disappearance of Timmothy Pitzen is dead: the boy's mother killed herself, leaving behind a cryptic note saying only that Timmothy was "safe" but that "you will never find him." The tragic story began in May 2011, when Amy Pitzen picked up her son in the middle of the school day, saying there had been a family emergency. She then took the boy on a series of trips, including stops at the zoo and two different water parks.
But just three days after the two left his school, Amy Pitzen would be found dead in a motel room with no sign of Timmothy. Jim Pitzen says his wife had struggled with depression and that the two had talked about getting divorced, but he adamantly believes that there's no way she would have hurt their son. He maintains hope that Timmothy is as safe as his mother's suicide note claimed.
3 Adji Desir
Adji Desir was just 6 years old when he disappeared in January 2009. The boy had been playing outside his grandmother's Florida home when he vanished. Police couldn't tell whether Adji had walked off on his own and gotten lost, or whether he'd been kidnapped by a stranger. A huge search got underway with a massive number of police and volunteers involved, but sadly the boy never turned up.
His disappearance was especially harrowing for his family given Adji's developmental issues— he functions at the mental capacity of a 2 year old, and he's almost nonverbal, only able to say a very small number of words. That means he would be unable to ask anyone for help or even say his own name. There had been speculation that the boy had possibly been taken to Haiti, where his family is originally from, but that idea has now been dismissed. His family is still hoping for his safe return, and Adji has since become a big brother to a little sister named after him.
2 Cherrie Mahan
8-year-old Cherrie Mahan got off her school bus one afternoon in February, 1985. She was just 150 yards or so from her home, but somehow she never made it there. Sadly, her mother almost always met her at the bus stop, but skipped it that day. Police say there were no footprints in the snowy ground leading to the Mahan home, so Cherrie was probably grabbed very shortly after getting off the bus.
A van was spotted near the school bus that day, but police have never been able to confirm whether it was related in any way to Cherrie's disappearance. Efforts to find Cherrie were exhaustive— she was the first missing child to appear on "Have You Seen This Child?" mailers distributed all over the country. She was an only child at the time of her disappearance, but her devastated mother would go on to have another child. The case remains open but so far there's been so sign of Cherrie and no arrests have ever been made.
1 Sarah Kinslow
Sarah Kinslow was dropped off at her Texas middle school one morning in May, 2001, but she never made it to class. She'd actually been planning to skip school with some friends that day, but they never saw her either. Sarah was dating an 18-year-old man at that time, who was arrested just a week after her disappearance and charged with sexual assault of a child. Though they were a couple, at 14 she was too young to consent to their sexual relationship.
He told police that he and Sarah had discussed running away together, but that they hadn't been serious about it. Police believe that Sarah ran away on her own, despite the fact that she didn't pack any clothes or her purse the day she went missing. Several of her friends failed lie-detector tests when questioned by police about her whereabouts. Police investigated sightings of Sarah in Oregon and Canada in 2004, three years after she first went missing, but so far nothing has turned up.
Sources: USA Today, Time, ABC News, Washington Post, Charley Project, People, Thought Catalog, Fox News, Bustle, Good Housekeeping