THE HONORABLE DEBORAH J. DANIELS
ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL
OFFICE OF JUSTICE PROGRAMS
NATIONAL CHILDREN'S ADVOCACY CENTER'S
19TH NATIONAL SYMPOSIUM ON CHILD ABUSE
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 12, 2003
I'm delighted to have the opportunity to talk to you about this Administration's efforts to protect children by expanding the AMBER Alert program nationwide. And I also want to thank those of you who are already involved in this important effort. Since the inception of AMBER Alert six years ago, radio and television broadcasters have played a critical role in alerting the public when children are missing and aiding in the safe return of these children to their families.
For those of you who aren't familiar with the AMBER Alert system, AMBER stands for America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response. It was created in 1996 as a legacy to 9-year-old Amber Hagerman, who was kidnaped while riding her bicycle in Arlington, Texas, and then brutally murdered.
In the aftermath of this horrible crime, Dallas-Fort Worth broadcasters teamed with local police to develop an early warning system to help find abducted children.
Since that initial effort, broadcasters and law enforcement have teamed up in other jurisdictions across the country to implement AMBER Alert plans. The goal of AMBER Alert is to quickly galvanize the entire community to assist in the safe return of the child and the apprehension of the predator.
Our research has shown that the first few hours are critical in the safe recovery of an abducted child. 74 percent of children who are kidnaped and later found murdered are killed within the first three hours after being taken. So a quick response is vital in saving the life of an abducted child.
AMBER Alert provides this quick response, and I am pleased to report that the number of AMBER programs across the country is growing. To date, there are 84 AMBER programs, 35 of which are statewide. So far, the AMBER program has been credited with the safe return of 45 children. But, because the program has not been implemented nationwide, there are still critical gaps that could endanger the lives of abducted children.
Although, statistically, the number of children abducted by strangers is relatively small, a rash of abductions last summer alarmed the American public and raised the level of awareness about the terrible vulnerability of our children.
From Jennifer Short in Virginia to Cassandra Williamson in St. Louis, to Elizabeth Smart in Salt Lake City to Danielle Van Dam in San Diego. Week after week came story after story about another abduction, another family's anguish, and, in most of these cases, another child murdered.
Although even a single child's victimization is one too many, our most recent national data reflect that stranger abductions are actually on the decline.
Even so, the data indicate that there were more than 58,000 non-family abductions in the United States in 1999. Fortunately, 99 percent of these children returned home. But 115 of these children were the victims of what we call “stereotypical kidnapings”, perpetrated by a stranger or slight acquaintance on a child who was transported 50 or more miles, detained overnight, held for ransom or with intent to keep the child permanently, or killed. Of these, tragically, 40% were killed, and another 4% were not recovered.
Moreover, we know that even children abducted by a non-custodial parent or other family member are sometimes also in danger.
To better address the problem of child abductions, last October, President Bush hosted the first ever White House Conference on Missing, Exploited, and Runaway Children.
The White House conference brought the President and the heads of 4 cabinet agencies – the Departments of Justice, State, Education, and Health and Human Services – together with more than 600 other experts. Participants discussed ways to raise public awareness about missing children and generated recommendations and best practices for law enforcement, parents, and communities.
The President used the occasion of the White House conference to direct Attorney General Ashcroft to establish an AMBER Alert Coordinator at the Justice Department to serve as a nationwide point of contact to assist state and local officials with developing and enhancing AMBER plans, and to promote statewide and regional coordination among plans.
As you may know, two bills were recently introduced in the United States Congress that would legislatively establish a national AMBER Alert program in the Department of Justice. On January 15th, the National AMBER Alert Network Act of 2003 was introduced in the Senate by Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Dianne Feinstein of California. The Senate unanimously passed the bill just six days later.
Companion bill has been introduced in the House of Representatives by Congresswoman Jennifer Dunn of Washington State and Congressman Martin Frost of Texas. And we look forward to similar quick passage of this legislation by the House.
But while this legislation is pending in Congress, we're moving forward at the Department of Justice to enhance and expand AMBER Alert throughout the nation. The Attorney General has appointed me as the National AMBER Alert Coordinator, and I am honored to have been given this important responsibility.
Over the past several months, my staff and I have worked to move this initiative forward on a number of fronts.
For example, we're examining the experience of communities that already have AMBER Alert Systems in place. My deputy, Cheri Nolan, and I have met with various constituencies across the country – law enforcement and other local officials, broadcasters, and missing children's organizations – to gather information on “lessons learned” through their experience.
As part of our ongoing AMBER initiative, we at the Office of Justice Programs have worked with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to produce a guide introducing and explaining the AMBER Alert system to broadcasters and law enforcement personnel. The guide is designed to encourage communities to adopt the system and to provide some basic “how to” information.
In the section for broadcasters, the guide describes the steps station managers need to take to establish a plan for broadcasting AMBER Alerts, for coordinating with law enforcement, and for responding to the community when a child has been reported missing.
It also provides a sample format broadcast stations can use when activating the Emergency Alert System. The guide is posted on the National Center's web site at www.ncmec.org, and I'm sure you'll hear more on this subject this morning, from Joann Donnellan of the National Center.
To begin moving our AMBER initiative forward, in December, I convened a meeting of a new AMBER Alert Working Group. We brought together experts from law enforcement, the media, government, and the private sector to obtain their advice and to discuss how best to implement a nationwide AMBER Alert collaboration. Carl Smith, President/CEO of the Oklahoma Broadcasters Association, an active member of this association, and its leader on AMBER Alert matters, was good enough to participate in that meeting and lend his expertise.
At the meeting, we examined model approaches to implementing AMBER Alert programs, assessed training and other resources needed to expand the system nationwide, and developed recommendations on strategies to address issues raised by our discussion. We are reviewing those recommendations now to determine our next steps in this process.
For example, one issue we're working on is the development of nationwide criteria for issuing and disseminating AMBER Alerts. Although each AMBER program will reflect the unique needs and resources of its own community, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children suggests three criteria that should be met before an Alert is activated:
– First, law enforcement must confirm that a child has been abducted.
– Second, law enforcement must confirm that the child is in danger of serious bodily harm.
– And third, there must be enough descriptive information about the child, abductor, and/or the suspect's vehicle to believe an immediate broadcast alert will aid in a recovery.
We believe these are some of the basic criteria that must be met, but we're looking at other issues, as well. Our goal is to help ensure that the use of the system is reserved for rare instances of serious child abductions.
To support our national AMBER Alert program, the Departments of Justice and Transportation have committed $10 million from existing funds. At least a part of this funding will support grants to provide training and education programs to help communities implement or expand AMBER Alert plans.
Congress has appropriated another $2.5 million in the Justice Department's 2003 budget, and, as I understand it, the Department of Transportation has set aside an additional $7 million. Further, Attorney General Ashcroft announced last month that the President is requesting an additional $2.5 million in new funding in Fiscal Year 2004 for the Justice Department to further this national initiative; and I'm told that the Department of Transportation's 2004 budget will also continue to support AMBER. If Congress approves our request, these new funds will be used to fund the areas of greatest need, and in a way that will maximize the impact of our limited funds. Possible uses could include:
– developing and providing training to law enforcement and broadcast personnel over a two-year period; and
– providing radio stations with the software needed to upgrade their Emergency Alert Systems to ensure that they can broadcast an AMBER missing child alert.
Similarly, Transportation funds will be used, in consultation with our state, local and national AMBER Alert partners, to best advantage for the benefit of our nation's children. We will work with our partners, the experts, to determine the most effective use of these limited funds for the benefit of those on the front lines throughout the country, on whom we depend to issue and broadcast AMBER alerts.
There are several issues we need collectively to consider and resolve, as we move forward toward a clear, consistent, and effective alert system throughout the country.
As you probably know, until recently, broadcasters have activated an AMBER Alert as a Civil Emergency Message, which is also used to alert citizens about weather-related emergencies, such as a flood or tornado. But use of this same message system has led to confusion in broadcasting AMBER Alerts.
For this reason, the Federal Communications Commission has adopted a special “Abducted Child Statement” event code to use within the Emergency Alert System when the AMBER plan is activated. While we cannot require stations to use this new code, we are strongly encouraging broadcasters to do so.
We estimate that approximately 10,000 radio stations may need to upgrade their Emergency Alert Systems with the proper AMBER Alert code, so that they'll be able to broadcast the Abducted Child Statement message. We understand that the upgrades are relatively inexpensive, and we hope they'll be affordable for most or all stations; but we'll work with communities to determine how, together, we can best accomplish this task.
Additional issues we must deal with, again as partners, include how to craft agreements within and between states that will call for states to respect each others' AMBER alerts and act quickly on them; to reconcile conflicting processes, such as the maximum age each state sets for the children that will fall under AMBER; and the type and extent of training needed.
Above all, we need a consistent and clearly understood practice, which must involve initiation of the alerts only by recognized police agencies; and agreement among all parties that the AMBER alert will be used only in carefully defined circumstances. There is a tremendous danger of overutilization of this critical tool, and consequent desensitization by the public, which could greatly diminish the effectiveness of the alert system. We are already hearing stories of groups setting themselves up using the “AMBER” name, and offering to issue AMBER alerts in exchange for money. We absolutely cannot allow any organization except a properly trained police department, which already has worked with broadcasters in the area to design a plan of action, to issue these alerts. And we must warn the public about those who would defraud them by suggesting that they have a separate capability or authority to do so.
Our goal is to get the AMBER Alert system up and running nationwide as soon as possible. If your state doesn't have an AMBER Alert system, I encourage you to work with your state officials to organize a task force composed of law enforcement, broadcasters, and local community representatives to develop a statewide AMBER plan.
Children's lives depend on this nationwide safety net. Let me give you just a few examples.
The first of these is probably familiar to all of you:
This past August, the system led to the recovery of two California teenagers – Tamara Brooks and Jacqueline Marris – who had been abducted by a felon who was already wanted on rape charges.
The abductor also stole a car, which was spotted on a remote, rural road by a local Animal Control officer who'd seen a description of the vehicle broadcast over the AMBER Alert System and called the information into police.
Law enforcement authorities believe the two teenage girls were only minutes away from being killed by their abductor when they were rescued and brought to safety.
That same month, the AMBER system resulted in the recovery of another missing child – 10-year-old Nichole Timmons. The California youngster had been kidnaped by her former babysitter.
That afternoon, a motorist in Nevada recognized the abductor's vehicle from the AMBER Alert broadcast over Nevada's Emergency Alert System. Nichole was rescued and safely reunited with her mother that evening.
As heartening as these recoveries are, we realize that many more children could have been saved if the AMBER Alert system had been available nationwide.
For more than a century, American broadcasters have been committed to serving the communities in which they operate. I urge you to do everything you can to ensure that the AMBER Alert is implemented in every community in our nation and that broadcasters are properly trained in its use. As we've seen from the stories of Tamara, and Jacqueline, and Nichole, children's lives depend on it.
Thank you very much for inviting me here today -- and, more importantly, for your strong and publicly demonstrated commitment to the safety of our nation's children.