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Bush Calls for Nationwide Expansion of 'Amber Alerts'

Crime: Government will provide $10 million to upgrade system aimed at finding missing children.

October 03, 2002|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Emerging from a tear-filled private session with families of kidnapped children, President Bush said Wednesday that "predators that are smooth and seductive" must be fought by expanding nationwide the system of broadcasting urgent bulletins when a child is taken.

"Our society has a duty, has a solemn duty to shield children from exploitation and danger," Bush told about 600 heartbroken but still-hopeful family members, law enforcement officials and experts gathered for a White House-sponsored conference. "One is too many, particularly for the mom or dad who suffers deeply."

Bush said the federal government would help turn the now-patchwork use of "Amber alerts" into a coordinated nationwide network, with $10 million for training and equipment upgrades. He also announced that the Justice Department would establish a national standard for the alerts and assign a new federal Amber alert coordinator to boost cooperation among state and local plans.

A series of high-profile child abductions--Samantha Runnion and Danielle van Dam in California, Cassandra Williamson in Missouri and Elizabeth Smart in Utah among them--have filled the headlines and terrified parents.

Before his remarks, Bush held an emotional 45-minute meeting behind closed doors with about a dozen people involved in missing-children cases.

Tamara Brooks recounted the day she and fellow teenager Jacqueline Marris were abducted at gunpoint in Lancaster, Calif. The girls were rescued 12 hours later when sheriff's deputies closed in on their abductor's stolen car in a remote location--with the help of Amber alerts, Tamara's mother said--and shot him to death.

The daylong White House Conference on Missing, Exploited and Runaway Children also sought to address youth homelessness, the trafficking of children for sex and labor, and the sexual solicitation and exploitation of children over the Internet.

Bush called for action on a number of fronts, urging the Senate to approve legislation--as the House already has--bypassing a Supreme Court decision that struck down a ban of computer simulations of child pornography.

The president issued a rare rebuke of the Republican-controlled House for failing to act on a measure that would provide $25 million to help create a national Amber alert network. The Senate approved the bill in September.

Activists have sought to expand the use of the alerts, developed after the 1996 kidnapping and murder of 9-year-old Amber Hagerman in Arlington, Texas. There now are 66 plans at the local, regional and state levels, while 24 states have adopted statewide systems.

Law enforcement agencies that choose to participate issue urgent bulletins--including photos and other information about missing children and their abductors--to television and radio stations via the Cold War-era Emergency Alert System. Some states also flash alerts to drivers on roadside emergency signs.

The mother of Elizabeth Smart, who was taken from her Salt Lake City bedroom in June and remains missing, praised the conference.

"It's wonderful to be here, but it's very painful too to hear all the statistics and the outcome of so many children," Lois Smart said.

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