THE HONORABLE DEBORAH J. DANIELS
ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL
OFFICE OF JUSTICE PROGRAMS
SECOND NATIONAL AMBER ALERT CONFERENCE
"BRINGING OUR CHILDREN HOME"
WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 8, 2004
Thank you, Cheri. Good morning. It's a pleasure to join you again for this second national conference on AMBER Alert. It's good to see so many familiar faces, and a few new faces as well. To those of you who have recently joined our efforts, welcome. And to the rest of you, let me say "thank you" for your continued commitment and hard work.
Well, here we are, almost two years since we began working more closely together to improve our response to the abduction of children. We've attended many of the same conferences and trainings and have been on hand at some of the same meetings. And we've been in touch on a more remote basis as well, sharing over the phone, by e-mail, and through letters many ideas and, happily, many successes. It's my pleasure to report that, as of today, AMBER Alert has helped to bring 155 children safely home.
I hope you take as much pride in that as I do. A reporter recently asked me, in a tone humming with cynicism, "What difference is AMBER really making?"
In spite of the cynical way in which it was asked, the question was a fair one, but an easy one to answer. I told him it matters because more than 150 children whose safety was seriously threatened are alive and safe at home with their families today. More than 150 children in imminent danger have been taken out of harm's way, their parents spared the worst nightmare imaginable.
And if that fact isn't convincing enough, one need only recount a few of the many AMBER success stories. Stories like the one in Los Angeles, where a tow truck driver took in a stranded motorist and a 12-year-old girl who had been traveling with him. As it turned out, the girl had been abducted. Later, after seeing an AMBER Alert message and recognizing the description of the car, the truck driver called police, who found the kidnapper asleep in his living room.
Or the story of the Missouri woman who noticed an acquaintance with an infant the acquaintance claimed was her own. The Missouri woman's suspicions to the contrary were confirmed by an AMBER Alert message, which prompted her to call the police. It turned out that the kidnapper had posed as a nurse while the mother and baby were in the hospital. Having later used the pretense of that relationship to gain entry to the home, she had taken the infant while the baby's four-year-old brother looked on. After the call was made, authorities were quickly on the scene.
Or the story of the Good Samaritan in Sandy, Utah, who saw a televised Alert for a six-week-old baby and embarked on his own search. Within an hour, he had found the stolen car with the infant sleeping safely inside.
AMBER is making a difference because children who are abducted have the hope of being quickly and safely recovered. It is making a difference because parents now know that a broad community of support is with them as they tackle the most dreadful challenge of their lives.
I also believe, based at least on anecdotal evidence, that AMBER Alert may discourage the criminally-minded from acting, for fear that they will be tracked down, not by a few law enforcement officers, but by an entire community, an entire state, or even people in other states to which they travel. AMBER Alerts have certainly caused a number of perpetrators, hearing the alert, to release the children they have abducted to a place of safety.
You saw our public service announcements in the opening moments of the conference. Those PSAs, which I think are very powerful, are part of our AMBER strategy and are, themselves, tools of prevention. As word spreads that citizens and authorities are on alert in defense of children, and that broadcasters are poised to spread the word, potential abductors may have second thoughts about carrying out their designs.
I want to thank John Walsh and Ed Smart-two fathers who have experienced the abduction of a child-and the good folks at America's Most Wanted for developing these pieces, and for doing so out of their own budget. They represent yet another measure of the long-standing commitment of America's Most Wanted to fighting crime, a commitment for which we are extremely grateful.
It is remarkable to consider how far we've come in such a short time. Before we began to coordinate our efforts nationally, AMBER was responsible for 34 recoveries in the span of six years. In the two years since we joined forces, we've brought home 121 children-four-fifths of our successes in one-fourth of the time. What a powerful testament to the value of working together!
You all know that AMBER began with a call to a Dallas radio show. Not long after residents learned of the murder of Amber Hagerman, they were channeling their collective outrage into innovative ideas for preventing further abductions. Broadcasters listened, and soon an unprecedented partnership was born between broadcasters and law enforcement, a partnership that grew with the involvement of transportation officials.
Now, 49 states have statewide AMBER Alert plans, compared with only four statewide plans at the end of 2001. Thanks to your foresight and willingness to collaborate, AMBER is virtually nationwide.
Our challenge now is to make this lifesaving system work with maximum speed and efficiency. The beauty of AMBER is that it draws on the resources of all players. But that beauty can also be its curse. If the communication chain breaks in any way, or if the reaction of any one of the vital components is less than immediate, then that single moment's pause could mean the difference between life and death for a child.
You know the statistics. You know that a child's safety is in greatest jeopardy during the first hours after the abduction. As President Bush reminded us, time is of the essence. There can be no margin for error. Like the clock against which we measure our response, the system is only as good or as effective as its many parts. This is our challenge. This is our goal: To make the AMBER network a smooth-running, well-oiled machine whose parts operate in perfect synchronicity.
We've been working together to realize this goal. We've held trainings to improve law enforcement's ability to respond to reports of missing children. We've developed criteria to help us determine when it's appropriate to issue an AMBER Alert, recognizing that an overused system is as much a liability as an underused system is ineffectual.
We've worked with the FBI to develop improved guidance for law enforcement agencies on flagging child abduction cases in the National Crime Information Center, or NCIC, and to create a new AMBER Alert data entry flag that will trigger immediate notification to the FBI and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Now that law enforcement has the ability to see in NCIC whether a child has been reported abducted or whether the abduction has been classified as an AMBER Alert, we're developing training and an instructional fact sheet and card on NCIC for law enforcement officers.
We've also worked to make communications technologies compatible so that when alerts are posted, information is widely-and wisely-shared. And we've just begun to take the next important step-to reach out to our partners in the private sector, and to enlist their valuable resources in our efforts.
Since July, the National Center has signed Memoranda of Understanding, or MOUs, with NEXTEL, AOL, and ADVO. By signing the MOUs, the companies agree to send out AMBER Alerts to thousands of people who use their services, giving us a direct line to the community residents who are our best allies in recovering abducted children.
You'll hear a lot more about this exciting development tomorrow, but I wanted to highlight a couple of important aspects of the MOUs. First, the mechanism put in place serves as a complement to, not a substitute for, your efforts. You-the law enforcement officers, the transportation officials, the broadcasters-are the front line of our response. Only after a decision has been made by law enforcement to issue an AMBER Alert-and the National Center confirms the Alert-will this secondary dissemination be activated.
And by no means is this mechanism intended to encourage citizens to take matters into their own hands. The valiant efforts of our Utah good Samaritan notwithstanding, we want people to understand that the pursuit and apprehension of criminal offenders is the responsibility of law enforcement, and of law enforcement only. People should know that the most helpful thing they can do is to give law enforcement information, promptly and accurately.
A second point I want to make about the MOUs reinforces my earlier statement about overuse of the system. Secondary dissemination-and here I quote from the MOUs-"follows the same guidelines as primary dissemination with regard to content integrity, geographic boundaries, and timely delivery." In other words, the alert that goes out from the National Center to the companies, and then to the users, must be the same message issued by law enforcement, and cover the same geographic area defined by the original alert. So a user in, say, Gary, Indiana won't get an alert posted for the greater Seattle area.
One of our tasks here this week is to demonstrate the technology being prepared for use in this context and to get your feedback. Once we have that feedback and have made any necessary adjustments, we can begin deploying this very promising tool, a tool that will help us move closer to our goal of a 100 % recovery rate.
Of course, an even more enviable goal is to prevent child abductions altogether. Now, whether you consider that goal realistic or not is really beside the point. The point is, no one knows what will happen to a child who is abducted. Quick action and contact with the offender is the surest way to prevent harm, but it does not guarantee a child's safety.
What we need, frankly, is to be more vigilant in limiting the opportunities for abduction. More than 50 percent of children kidnapped in non-family abductions are taken from the street, in a vehicle, or from a park or wooded area. Almost 75 percent of those taken in family abductions are kidnapped from their own or another's home or yard.
Parents need to understand the dangers involved in leaving children unattended. They need to know the risks of keeping a child in a car, even if only for a few seconds, while they run inside the convenience store-or even, as happened recently, the school. And they need to appreciate the jeopardy in which children are placed by domestic violence.
I encourage you to preach prevention as part of your message. Log onto our website at its new and more easily accessible URL-www.amberalert.gov-and download the Guide to Child Safety, then share it widely as part of your public awareness efforts. Help people in your state understand that vigilance is the best ally of safety.
But when a child is abducted, we have more and better tools than ever to find them, and return them safely home. Law enforcement and broadcasters are charter members of this enterprise, and transportation officials have also stepped up to the plate in Ruthian style.
Many of the AMBER successes can be attributed to the information posted on what those in the transportation field call "changeable message signs." These are the large electronic billboards you often see on interstates and other major roads that announce construction or other traffic delays, travel times, and other types of emergency alerts.
A recent report issued by the Federal Highway Administration found that transportation agencies have deployed almost 3,500 permanent or portable message signs in metropolitan areas across the country. This gives us a huge boost in our efforts to broadcast AMBER Alerts.
The FHA report also includes guidelines on the posting of messages, including AMBER Alerts. The guidelines offer several recommendations to state Departments of Transportation, and I urge everyone, especially those of you from the transportation arena, to read them.
I'm also happy to mention that the U.S. Department of Transportation has joined us again this year to update you on its grant program and to describe some best practices.
There's no question that we're continuing the momentum we've generated over the last two years. We're tapping the full potential of our existing partners and enlisting new ones to build on our abundant strengths. Children are being protected; families are being preserved.
The work you have done is groundbreaking. It sets a new standard for cooperation and collective action. You should be proud of what you have accomplished. At the same time, you should realize that you have set a precedent. Rapid response is now the rule, not the exception, and we must abide by it, without exception.
Our challenge now is to take up the imperative issued by President Bush when he said that, quote, "Our society has a solemn duty to shield children from exploitation and danger." Indeed, we have no greater responsibility. The people in this room are the bearers of that responsibility, and it is you on whom our children and their families depend for safety and protection. We cannot and must not fail them.