Four months before my 30th birthday, the world changed. A young boy, a 4th grade student at St. Agnes Catholic School in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury District, disappeared and was never heard from again. Kevin Collins was last seen on February 10, 1984 at Masonic and Oak Street in The City. Police records indicate that Kevin was waiting for a bus after leaving basketball practice at the school. The publicity of Kevin's disappearance, which included his photo on billboards, milk cartons, and the evening news, changed the practice of parenting forever.
I, too, attended a Catholic elementary school in San Francisco. Twenty years before Kevin's disappearance, when I was a 4th grader at St. Gabriel School in the Sunset District, it was not at all uncommon for me to take either the "L" Taraval streetcar or the #72 Muni bus to the corner of 5th & Market in the heart of downtown. Most often, I made that journey alone, without parental supervision. Neither my parents nor I worried about me making the trek alone. Sometimes, after arriving at 5th & Market, I would walk around the corner to SFFD Station 1 on Jesse Street to visit my Dad who worked there at the time. Other times I would spend an afternoon shopping in the Market Street or Union Square areas of The City. I especially enjoyed feasting on a hot dog and vanilla milkshake at the food counter in the Woolworth Store at Powell & Market. I even recall taking the Powell Street Cable Car, which was then a viable means of transportation for locals, to the Fisherman's Wharf area to do some Christmas shopping at either Akron or Cost Plus. Never did I worry about my safety. That was 1964.
The disappearance of Kevin Collins put a fear in parents which lingers to this day. While many of today's young parents may be unfamiliar with the Kevin Collins case, they are well-aware of the possibility that their child, or any child, could disappear at any time. No longer do young children take public transportation unsupervised. No longer may children go off on their own to explore their local world. For a parent in 2013 to allow a 4th grader to take a bus or streetcar to downtown San Francisco unaccompanied by an adult would most likely be perceived as negligent. For the past 20+ years, whether at a park, a shopping mall, on public transportation, or even at church on Sunday, parents have hovered protectively over their children, or at least kept a close eye on them from a reasonable distance. The fear of any harm coming to our children has been overwhelming.
I'm tremendously grateful for the freedom I had as a child, and for the self-confidence I gained as a result of the independence I was given. It is unfortunate that so many children today miss out on that opportunity. The social skills I gained from the experiences I enjoyed at such a young age have served me well throughout my lifetime. I wish every young boy or girl could have such similar experiences.