Kidnapped Kids

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The dramatic return of teenager Elizabeth Smart to her family last month focused national attention on a question that her father raised in anger: Why isn’t there a national Amber Alert system to help recover kidnapped children?

After all, President Bush has asked Congress to create such a system, and most members of Congress have voted to do just that. Nevertheless, the national Amber Alert system remains hostage to what Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas) called “the usual Washington games.”

In this case, the game involves taking a bill that appears headed for enactment and piling on legislation that stands little hope of passage, in hopes that Congress will swallow the whole thing. So far neither side will budge, leaving the Amber Alert bill in limbo.

A spokeswoman for the Polly Klaas Foundation accused Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) of “playing politics with our kids’ lives” by loading the Amber bill with other proposals. But former foundation director Mark Klaas – whose 12-year-old daughter, Polly, was kidnapped and killed in 1993 – said Sensenbrenner’s strategy makes perfect sense.

And the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which has $10 million at stake in the outcome, says it just wants any of the bills to pass.

Here’s how the stalemate developed:

Created in 1996 and named after 9-year-old Amber Hagerman, who was kidnapped and killed in Texas, Amber Alert is a partnership between law enforcement and broadcasters. When a child is abducted, police decide if a case meets the criteria to be broadcast on that system, then send out a description of the child and suspect through numerous outlets, including radio and TV broadcasts and electronic highway signs. There are more than 85 state and local Amber Alert programs operating in at least 38 states; they’ve been credited with helping to recover (depending on whose claim you read) up to 47 children.

The National Amber Alert Network Act would build a national communications network for Amber Alert plans, help to establish new Amber Alert systems in areas where none exist, establish standards for coordination of the plans, and provide $25 million for education and training from the departments of Justice and Transportation.

The legislation easily passed the Senate last September and was introduced in the House by Democrat Frost and Republican Rep. Jennifer Dunn of Washington. But Sensenbrenner, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee (through which the bill must pass) and several colleagues packaged that legislation into a “comprehensive child abduction prevention bill” with several measures that had been rejected by the Senate.

Their Child Abduction Prevention Act increases various penalties for child sexual abuse, exploitation and pornography; expands legal justifications for wiretaps on people suspected of sexually exploiting children; proposes possible life supervision of released sex offenders; and attacks “sex tourism” by, for instance, making it a crime for a U.S. citizen or permanent resident “traveling in foreign commerce to engage or attempt to engage in illicit sexual conduct.”

To many House Democrats, these are typical GOP get-tough measures that violate civil liberties. But Sensenbrenner “knows Democrats would have trouble voting against Amber Alert,” said one Democratic House staffer.

The House approved the Sensenbrenner package last fall by 390 to 24. But a Senate/House conference committee could not create a compromise bill that both chambers could live with, so the legislation expired with the 107th Congress last year.

President Bush, who had urged Congress to pass an Amber bill, issued an executive order last fall to implement some of its provisions: establishing an Amber Alert coordinator in the Department of Justice and devoting $10 million for Amber Alert training, education and expansion.

This year the Senate again passed its Amber Alert bill. A similar bill was again introduced in the House, where Sensenbrenner again introduced his package.

After Elizabeth Smart was found alive and returned to her family last month, her father, Ed – who had lobbied in Washington for the Senate version – went on CBS’ The Early Show blasting Sensenbrenner, saying that his “unwillingness to let the Amber Alert pass on its own is hurting children.” The Polly Klaas Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union and several members of Congress have also criticized Sensenbrenner’s strategy.

But Klaas stuck up for Sensenbrenner, saying of Smart, “I don’t think this character has a clue as to what he’s really talking about.”

Klaas said he supports most of the measures added by Sensenbrenner and has no problem with his packaging strategy. “I can understand that it would be difficult to get the Sensenbrenner agenda passed without having it attached to the Amber bill,” he said.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has urged passage of the stand-alone Amber bills. However, when Sensenbrenner held a press conference last month to defend his bill, one of those on hand in support was Boys & Girls Clubs of America Vice President Robbie Calloway, who was there in his role as chairman of the board of the national center.

The center would see an annual federal grant of $10 million doubled under the Sensenbrenner proposal. But Calloway said both the national center and the Boys and Girls Clubs would be happy with any of the bills, and he will try to foster a compromise.

Good luck. Last month the House Judiciary Committee passed the Sensenbrenner bill 18 to 2, sending it to the full House for a vote. Passage would again send it to a conference committee.

How much does that matter? Klaas, who now heads the KlaasKids Foundation, said Amber Alert systems will continue to expand without federal action. And Georgia Hilgeman, executive director of the California-based Vanished Children’s Alliance, pointed out that Amber Alerts are only “one of many tools” to find missing and abducted children. Even with a national system, she said, “Most missing kids will never have that kind of exposure.”

Contact: Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner (202) 225-5101; National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s Amber Plan summary and links, http://www.missingkids.com/html/amberplan.html.