THE HONORABLE DEBORAH J. DANIELS
ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL
OFFICE OF JUSTICE PROGRAMS
NATIONAL BROADCASTER’S ASSOCIATION
STATE LEADERSHIP CONFERENCE
MONDAY, MARCH 1, 2004
Good Morning! It is a pleasure to speak to you today. Over the past year and a half, in my role as the National AMBER Alert Coordinator, I have become increasingly aware of the influence and power of the microphone. I have had the opportunity to work with many of you in this period, and recognize the critical role that broadcasters play, not only in bringing important news to the public but also contributing to one of the most important tools for protecting children today.
With this power comes tremendous responsibility and opportunity. The public depends on the broadcasters to give them accurate information about abducted children.
We now know that the typical profile of an abducted child is an eleven-year-old white female from a middle class or blue collar family. She is usually considered well-adjusted and not "at risk." She has a good relationship with her family. 58% of offenders contact the child within three blocks of the victim’s home, and a full third contact their victims less than 200 feet from the child’s home.
Even though stranger abductions are declining, there were more than 58,000 non-family abductions in the United States in 1999, the last year we measured. Fortunately 99% of these children returned home safely.
But 115 of the children were victims of what we call "stereotypical kidnappings," perpetrated by a stranger or slight acquaintance of the child, in which the child was transported 50 or more miles, detained overnight, held for ransom or with the intent to keep the child permanently, or killed.
Of these children, tragically, 40% were killed; and another 4% were not recovered. Fortunately, the AMBER Alert is helping bring more of those children home.
Without you--the broadcasters--we wouldn’t have an AMBER Alert. I think that, by now, most or all of you are aware of the history of the AMBER Alert. Its roots lie in the enterprising broadcasters of Dallas, Texas. After the terrible tragedy of Amber Hagerman’s abduction and death in Arlington, Texas eight years ago, a caller to a Dallas talk show suggested the idea of radio stations broadcasting the news of a child’s abduction and descriptions of the possible abductor.
It did not take long for over 25 local radio stations to join forces and agree to the suggestion.
In cooperation with North Texas law enforcement, broadcasters agreed that the alerts would be issued only for abducted children in imminent danger--not for runaways or custody cases. Alerts would be issued for the Amber Hagermans of the world. The Dallas AMBER Plan was born.
To date, the tireless efforts and cooperation of the broadcasters’ associations, general managers, producers, radio hosts, TV anchors -- and let’s not forget those overnight board operators --have helped in the recovery of 126 children-- with 72 of those recoveries occurring in 2003 alone!
In March of 2002, only eight states had statewide AMBER Alert plans. We now have 48 states with statewide AMBER Alert programs. All 48 contiguous states now have statewide plans – and we are well on our way to achieving a seamless network of cooperating state plans across the country.
2004 is starting with great promise to be a banner year for the children of America, because of your excellent work with the AMBER Alert. Congratulations to Wyoming and North Carolina for implementing their statewide plans this year! And I understand that Alaska and Hawaii hope to be up and running soon.
Since the beginning of this year, there have already been 10 recoveries due to the AMBER Alert--just in January and February alone! It seems that almost every other day we hear about a child being safely returned to his or her family due to the AMBER Alert.
In just a short time, we have together made tremendous progress toward reaching the goal President Bush set for us at the White House conference on Missing and Exploited Children in October, 2002--the goal of expanding the reach of state and local AMBER Alert systems through a nationwide network.
The Department of Justice has been working with an advisory group of experts in the field to develop a national strategy--of which broadcasters are an important element. We held two training conferences last year, and brought together AMBER Alert coordinators from every state for the first time.
This year, among other things, we plan to convene a second national conference inviting teams from all our states and territories, as we did last year. We’ll also offer regional and local training to help communities improve their local systems as well as their ability to interact with each other.
We know that the state broadcasters routinely conduct trainings as well. To assist you with training broadcasters in your state, I have recorded introductory remarks about the AMBER Alert for you to use in conjunction with your own training videos about your state’s AMBER Alert. The National Association of Broadcasters assisted us with the taping, and has kindly agreed to send a copy to the head of each statewide association. Please watch for this tape to arrive in the mail within a few weeks.
While we have made great progress, we still have work to do. With your help, we can continue to educate the public about the AMBER Alert and its proper use.
A common misconception in some segments of the news media is that there is one nationwide AMBER Alert that can, or should, be issued when a child is missing. Almost daily I read press accounts of local abductions where the headline reads: "Child Recovered After Nationwide Amber Alert."
As broadcast leaders in your state, you know quite well that there is no such thing as a nationwide AMBER Alert. We don’t issue alerts from Washington, DC when local law enforcement in Colorado or Texas, for example, thinks an Alert should be issued.
It is vital that the public understand that local law enforcement issues alerts, and local broadcasters disseminate them--so that the local residents who are familiar with the region, and possibly the child, can help law enforcement with the search. You can help us by making sure that members of the public in your region understand this important fact.
We would never want to issue a nationwide alert when a child is abducted. Overuse could desensitize the public and cause them to ignore the critical nature of true emergencies. This could diminish the effectiveness of the alert system. One local sheriff has likened the situation to hearing a car alarm--we are now so accustomed to them that we don’t even turn our heads when one goes off. We never want the public to experience this kind of nonchalance when a child is in danger.
We have made tremendous progress toward a completely interconnected nationwide AMBER Alert network, however. States reach agreements with one another, so that if law enforcement in one state has reason to believe that a child has been taken to another, law enforcement in the second state will issue an AMBER Alert at the request of the first.
Just last fall, a boy was abducted from a suburb of Chicago. Illinois state police issued an AMBER Alert, but their investigation revealed that the child had been taken to California. At the request of Illinois, California promptly issued an alert. And the child was safely recovered there, in California.
In fact, children are often recovered as a direct result of the efforts of broadcasters. In August of 2002, 4-year-old Jessica Cortez of Los Angeles was reported missing from a local park. Authorities began to search for her under the assumption that she had drowned. Shortly thereafter, witnesses came forward, claiming they had seen Jessica leaving the park with an adult other than her parents. An AMBER Alert was immediately issued.
Within hours, authorities received a call from a local hospital claiming that a woman had brought Jessica in to be seen by a doctor. The hospital workers recognized Jessica after seeing the AMBER Alert, which had been broadcast on local television. Law enforcement was quickly on the scene, the suspect was taken into custody, and Jessica was reunited with her parents.
And last year in Covington, Georgia, just outside Atlanta, Bonnie Allen contacted authorities when her boyfriend failed to return home with her 16-month-old son after picking him up from day care. After learning that the boyfriend had a history of drug abuse, law enforcement issued a statewide AMBER Alert.
An astute citizen named Brian Smith heard the alert on an Atlanta radio station. Smith called his wife Rebecca to tell her to dial 911 if she saw the boyfriend’s car. Rebecca chuckled a bit at her husband’s earnest attitude, thinking she would never see the perpetrator’s vehicle. But sure enough, shortly thereafter, to her amazement, Rebecca saw the perpetrator’s car, turning directly in front of her in traffic. She called the police and the suspect was apprehended. The child was safely returned to his mother.
These cases are wonderful examples of how law enforcement and broadcasters can achieve tremendous results when they work together to bring a more-than-willing public into the search for children in danger. We cannot thank you enough for interrupting your programming, issuing the alerts, and training your staff in these life saving procedures. All of America’s parents and children are grateful to you for your efforts.
We all see the anguish and the tragedy that results from the abduction and victimization of children. In my days as a prosecutor, I saw far too much of this wrenching pain. But during the time that I have worked with you and the AMBER Alert, I have been tremendously encouraged by how well law enforcement and broadcasters work together to recover children quickly and safely. Our communities are safer because of your partnership, and your dedication to these children and their families.
You can do another thing for AMBER as well: help us ensure the integrity of the system, so that people recognize the significance of a bona fide AMBER Alert. We’re all aware of instances in which some well meaning organizations, but ones not authorized to do so, decide unilaterally to "issue an AMBER Alert." As broadcasters, it is imperative that you issue alerts only when asked by law enforcement. Any other action might jeopardize a search for the abducted child.
Through your efforts, AMBER Alert is becoming more than a rescue operation. There are signs that it is beginning to serve as an actual deterrent. One of the most exciting trends we have seen in recent years is that there have been incidents when a child’s abductor has heard the AMBER Alert on the radio and out of fear has released the child.
In late 1999, in Dallas, a nine-year-old child was grabbed and thrown into a truck after a man had stopped her and her friend while they were walking home from school. He enticed the girls with stories about a bunch of kittens in a nearby field.
Fortunately, the abducted girl’s friend was able to give a full description of the perpetrator and details about his vehicle. An AMBER Alert was immediately issued over local radio stations. About five hours after the abduction, three motorists called in and reported a child wandering alone along the highway. It turns out that the abductor had ordered the child to get out of the car after he heard the AMBER Alert description on the radio.
And in the past year, this has happened several times. For example, last fall in Lafayette, Colorado, authorities learned that a man had beaten his former girlfriend and abducted their 14-month-old son. An AMBER Alert was issued. When the man heard the AMBER Alert on his radio, he dropped off the child at a family member’s house. The family member quickly contacted the child’s mother, and the two were reunited.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if this happened every time a child was abducted? Or, better yet, that potential abductors would be deterred from the act altogether, based on a fear of capture due to the prompt issuance of an AMBER Alert? You may have heard the statistic that 74% of all children murdered by their abductor are killed within the first three hours of being taken--and 99% are murdered within twenty-four hours.
At the Department of Justice, we hope to see a day when no more children are endangered by abduction, because the AMBER Alert is so effective as a deterrent to would-be perpetrators. With your help, we can work toward this goal.
Thank you so much for your clearly demonstrated and fervent commitment to our children. I commend you all for your dedication to this all-important cause, and I look forward to continuing to work with you as we continue to improve our collective ability to respond in times of crisis.
Thank you again for everything you are doing to make our communities safer, and thank you for the privilege of addressing you today.