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Van Dam Mother to Create Foundation

Following the path of other parents of murdered children, the mother of 7-year-old Danielle van Dam is creating a foundation to promote child safety and preserve the memory of her daughter.

Brenda van Dam hopes to have the foundation running by Sept. 22, which would have been Danielle's eighth birthday.

``With all the other missing children, we felt there's got to be something we can do,'' said Susan Wintersteen, a van Dam family friend who is helping to organize the effort.

Danielle's parents are prohibited by a gag order from speaking to the news media about any issue related to their daughter until after the sentencing of David Westerfield.

A jury on Aug. 21 convicted Westerfield of kidnapping Danielle from her bedroom and killing her in February. The penalty phase of the trial is scheduled to begin Wednesday.

Brenda van Dam and five friends met over the weekend at Wintersteen's home, not far from where the girl was kidnapped, to work on the details of what is to become the Danielle Legacy Foundation.

Modeling their group on Mothers Against Drunk Driving, they plan to use the network of volunteers who helped in the search for Danielle to promote child safety and promote programs like the nationwide Amber Alert system, Wintersteen said.

The system, named in honor of Amber Hagerman, a Texas girl killed in 1996, is a way of quickly disseminating information about a missing child through news media and other outlets. It's used in more than a dozen states.

The San Diego effort follows other advocacy and safety groups born out of tragedy. They include the Laura Recovery Center, named for Laura Kate Smithers, murdered in Friendswood, Texas, in 1997. The group fields volunteer searchers in child kidnapping cases.

Laura Recovery coordinated thousands of searchers after Danielle was reported missing Feb. 2. One of the volunteers found her body along a rural road nearly a month after the abduction.

Marc Klaas created the Klaaskids Foundation, after his daughter, Polly, was kidnapped and murdered in Northern California in 1993. Another group is named for Carole Sund, who was killed with her daughter, Juli, and the girl's friend Silvina Pelosso while they were visiting Yosemite National Park in 1999.

``A lot of families tend to start an organization in their loved ones memory, so there are a lot of them out there,'' said Kim Petersen of the Carole Sund Carrington Memorial Reward Foundation, based in Modesto. ``It can be very healing.''

It can also be very difficult. Foundations trying to raise donations often find themselves competing with similar efforts or overshadowed by larger organizations, said Klaas, who lobbies, speaks on child safety and helps other groups.

Still, ``There's always room for innovation, for fresh new ideas,'' Klaas said.

Wintersteen, whose daughter was in school and Brownies with Danielle, said one of the group's first efforts will be to distribute identification kits that parents can use to set aside their child's fingerprints, DNA and a recent photo.

Investigators had to scramble to collect such identifiers when Danielle disappeared in February.

``We still feel there is change that needs to be done,'' Wintersteen said.