NEW YORK – With this year's rash of child kidnappings and murders still fresh in the minds of people nationwide, President Bush and others want to improve child safety and make sure those who violate kids in any way pay severely for their actions.
Bush this week hosted the first White House Conference on Missing, Exploited and Runaway Children to raise public awareness of the problem and to inform parents, law enforcement and communities on what they can do to keep their kids safe.
"The kidnapping of a child is every parent's worst nightmare. Yet, too many moms and dads have experienced this nightmare across America," Bush said during the conference. "Our society has a duty, has a solemn duty, to shield children from exploitation and danger."
One of the measures the president is pushing to help protect children is national use of the Amber Alert system.
"We should not allow another day to go by without taking steps to expand the Amber plan's reach all across our country," Bush said.
The Amber Alert is an emergency broadcast system that announces when a child is missing. Created in 1996, it is the legacy of then-9-year-old Amber Hagerman, who was abducted and murdered in Arlington, Texas. The case remains unsolved.
The system is a voluntary partnership between law enforcement and broadcasters to activate urgent alerts to the public about new child abduction cases.
The Amber Alert gained positive attention this summer when it helped lead to the rescue of two teenage girls in California. Soon after that, the alert helped police find 10-year-old Nichole Taylor Timmons, who was abducted from her bedroom in her California home by a former babysitter.
Not long afterward, the system aided authorities in their search for 4-year-old Jessica Cortez, who was taken from a Los Angeles park. Cortez was located in a medical clinic where staff had heard about her disappearance through Amber alert reports and notified authorities.
At the conference this week, Bush called for a federal coordinator for the Amber Alert system to help states and communities make sure their Amber alerts are effective and in sync.
Attorney General John Ashcroft appointed Assistant Attorney General Deborah Daniels as the federal coordinator to set national standards for how and when the Amber Alerts are issued, and to make sure they are only used in serious child abductions in which the child could be in danger.
Daniels was the first director of the Executive Office of Weed and Seed, a Justice program started in 1991 that tried to weed out violent crime, gang activity and drug use and trafficking in certain areas, then "seed" those areas through social and economic programs.
Ashcroft is giving $3 million to Daniels' effort. Money will go toward training and education programs, upgrading emergency alert systems, and furthering the use of electronic highway message boards and other systems used to make notifications.
Bush is also throwing his support behind a bill sponsored by Sens. Kay-Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., that would help states develop and coordinate their Amber plans. It also called for a federal Amber coordinator. That bill was passed by the Senate last month and is now in a House committee.
House lawmakers on Wednesday sent a separate bill to the floor that slaps kidnappers and other child predators with harsher penalties.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is chock full of measures that would enhance operation of the Amber Alert.
It makes sure repeat sex offenders spend more time in jail and gives judges more supervision over their release; gives $20 million to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children each year through 2004; provides money to a federal sex-offender apprehension program; allows more wiretaps to be used in sexual exploitation crimes against kids; cracks down on people traveling to foreign countries to take part in child sex crimes; and sends twice-convicted sex offenders to jail for life.
"We're certainly hopeful and working towards getting a bill enacted this year," said House Judiciary spokesman Jeff Lundgren, who called the measure "a comprehensive and balanced approach to addressing the problem of child abductions."
For its part, America Online will begin transmitting Amber Alerts about abducted children onto the screens of computers, pagers and cell phones of more than 26 million subscribers in dozens of states and cities. Beginning in November, warnings issued across the Amber Alert community will go to AOL users who request to receive alerts in locations where it is activated.
Hewlett Packard also announced it has teamed with NCMEC to offer parents a free, do-it-yourself child safety identification kit to help promote child safety awareness and protect children. The kit is available for download at http://www.hp.com/go/safe-kids from any computer with Internet access.