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Bush Plans Conference on Missing and Exploited Children

THE NATION

Crime: In response to the rash of abductions, the president plans a White House event to update law enforcement and policymakers on the issue.

August 06, 2002|EDWIN CHEN and LISA FACKLER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Responding in part to the recent rash of child abduction and slaying cases, President Bush is scheduled today to announce plans for a White House conference on missing and runaway children, administration officials said late Monday.

His administration also will release a "Personal Safety for Children" guidebook, describing the best ways parents can protect their children from harm and exploitation--a rare but horrifying phenomenon.

Like Bush's Aug. 13 forum on the economy in Waco, Texas, the Conference on Missing, Exploited and Runaway Children is designed to display the president's concern about another problem that affects young families--who also happen to comprise an influential voting bloc, especially in the nation's suburbs.

The makings of the Sept. 24 conference were in the works long before the recent, highly publicized cases of abductions and slayings of children, including several in California, officials said.

One top White House aide said the administration has been working on these steps since late January or early February.

But the recent incidents clearly have given the issue a sense of urgency.

The daylong conference is intended to promote public awareness of the issues surrounding the disappearance and exploitation of children, and it will bring together experts, policymakers, community leaders, teachers and law enforcement authorities to share reports of progress that has been made and generate ideas to help prevent the abuse of children in the United States.

The guidebook, available in English and Spanish, will be distributed by the Department of Education.

Each year, from 3,000 to 5,000 children are abducted by non-family members in the U.S.; most of the children are taken for short-term sexual reasons.

In about 200 to 300 cases, the children are killed, ransomed or taken with the intention of keeping them, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

The issue has been in the headlines because of the recent cases involving young girls: 7-year-old Erica Pratt in Philadelphia, 7-year-old Danielle van Dam in San Diego, 6-year-old Cassandra Williamson in St. Louis, 5-year-old Samantha Runnion in Stanton, 14-year-old Elizabeth A. Smart in Salt Lake City, and two teenage Antelope Valley girls.

Erica escaped from her captors; Danielle, Cassandra and Samantha were killed; the Antelope Valley girls were freed after police shot their kidnapper to death; and Elizabeth is still missing.

Despite such cases, however, the missing children center is urging parents to stay calm, noting that the number of child abduction cases has actually declined slightly this year.

The center, a Virginia-based nonprofit organization, is co-sponsoring the White House conference with the Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

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