Child Protection Laws Coated in Amber

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The safe return of a kidnapped girl in Utah has helped bring the country closer than ever to nationwide systems for alerting the public about kidnapped kids and conducting criminal background checks on volunteer youth workers.

The return of teenager Elizabeth Smart in March was a key motivator for congressional passage last month of a bill that expands the Amber Alert system and enacts other measures against child abuse and pornography.

While supporters such as Robbie Callaway, vice president of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, hailed the Protect Act (S 151) as “the most significant piece of child protection legislation to come out of Congress” in 20 years, opponents blasted it as an over-the-top “get tough” on crime bill that tramples on civil liberties and the judicial system.

The story of its passage is a lesson in how Washington works: The Amber Alert bill seemed headed for swift enactment last fall, until a powerful congressman loaded it with controversial amendments in hopes of pushing them through on its coattails. That sent the bill into limbo, as Democrats and Republicans refused to compromise. (“Amber Alert Held Hostage by Politics,” April.)

But a recent wave of publicity about the political stalemate over a matter of child safety opened the way for Amber Alert supporters to press Congress to act – forcing even those who were repulsed by the add-ons to vote for the package or be exposed as having voted against the highly popular Amber Alert.

While much of the package focuses on cracking down on child abusers and pornographers, it includes several gifts for youth-serving agencies – such as a $10 million increase in the congressional authorization for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and 100,000 FBI criminal background checks for the B&GCA, the National Mentoring Partnerships and the National Council of Youth Sports, with hopes of expanding the project to other organizations.

The bill’s passage resulted from intense, round-the-clock lobbying and negotiating, but the basic motivators were two girls, ages 9 and 15.

Smart Moves

More than 85 state and local Amber Alert programs are operating in at least 38 states, and they’ve been credited with helping to recover as many as 47 children. 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 whether the case meets the criteria to be broadcast on the local Amber system, then send out a description of the child and the suspect through outlets that include radio, TV and electronic highway signs.

Last fall the Senate passed a bill (the National Amber Alert Network Act) to link and expand the Amber Alert systems, in hopes of creating essentially a national system. In the House, however, Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) packaged the idea into a “comprehensive child abduction prevention bill” with several criminal justice measures that had been rejected by the Senate. “The House used the Amber Alert as a sweetener for other matters,” said a Senate staffer who worked on the legislation.

The House approved the package, but a Senate/House conference committee could not agree on a compromise bill that both chambers could live with. So the bill expired with the 107th Congress at the end of last year.

The same script appeared to be in the works this year: The Senate passed a stand-alone Amber bill, while Sensenbrenner moved forward with his child abduction package. Then in March, 15-year-old Elizabeth Smart, who’d been kidnapped from her Salt Lake City home last summer, was found safe and returned home.

That return “was such a hopeful thing to a lot of people,” Callaway says. “It inspired a lot of people” in Congress to intensify efforts to pass the Amber bill.

What’s more, Elizabeth’s father, Ed Smart, used the national spotlight to talk about the need for the Amber bill (which most American didn’t know about) and to blast Sensenbrenner for “hurting children” by holding up its passage. Others, such as the Polly Klaas Foundation, joined in the criticism. Sensenbrenner held a press conference on Capitol Hill to defend himself.

Outsiders might think the criticism would have forced Sensenbrenner to back down and let the Amber Alert pass on its own. But, unlike last year, the Republicans now control both chambers of Congress. Sensenbrenner intensified his efforts to pass his legislation.

“He said, ‘I’m going to pass this bill as soon as possible, because I’m taking the heat,’ ” said one House staffer who worked on the legislation.

After the House bill passed, the two bills again went to a conference committee, where Sensenbrenner was named chairman. He told the committee staff to hammer out a final bill to present to the House and Senate within a matter of days. Staffers worked well past midnight and into the weekend, with activist/lobbyists such as Callaway and John Walsh (of “America’s Most Wanted”) meeting almost nonstop with members of Congress and consulting with congressional staff. “I received calls at 3 o’clock in the morning,” Callaway says.

Even by Capitol Hill standards, the battle between Republican and Democratic lawmakers was heated. “They were yelling and shouting,” Callaway says. “There was a lot of hostility.”

In the end, Democrats who opposed Sensenbrenner’s package bowed to the reality that the GOP had the votes. Foes such as Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont (D), who sponsored the original Amber Alert bill, did get some provisions added and others changed.

The House passed the conference committee’s compromise bill by 400-25; the Senate, by 98-0.

“It would have been hard to explain a ‘no’ vote to your constituents back home,” the House staffer said.

The White House says President Bush intends to sign the bill.

The Details

Following are the major provisions of what is officially named the Prosecutorial Remedies and Other Tools to End the Exploitation of Children Today Act of 2003:

• Amber Alert – establishes a “national coordinator” for Amber Alert within the U.S. Department of Justice to help connect and expand Amber Alert systems (a position President Bush created last fall by executive order); provides $30 million in grants for fiscal year 2004 from the departments of Transportation and Justice to help states develop or enhance Amber Alert communications systems and plans (including hardware and training); and sets voluntary minimum standards for the operation of Amber Alert systems (such as determining what information is broadcast and where).

• Background checks – creates an 18-month pilot program for youth-serving organizations to obtain fingerprint background checks on volunteers, using state and FBI records. The pilot, to run in three unspecified states, will provide 100,000 background checks evenly divided among the B&GCA (based in Atlanta), the National Mentoring Partnership (based in Alexandria, Va.) and the National Council of Youth Sports (based in Stuart, Fla.). The state and federal governments can pass on the costs of the background checks to the agency (no more than $18 for each federal check, for instance.) The results of each check will be reported to NCMEC, which will determine (using criteria established with the participating organizations) if the volunteer is fit to work with children.

Callaway says he hopes this is the beginning of a national background check system that will be widely available to youth-serving organizations.

• National Center for Missing and Exploited Children – increases NCMEC’s $10 million annual federal grant to $20 million for fiscal years 2004 and 2005. The center ran on a $33 million budget last year, with a staff of 200. Callaway, chairman of NCMEC’s board, says the center gets about $21 million in appropriations from Congress each year, and that the authorization increase probably won’t mean more money for the center. But Ed Pagano, legislative counsel to Sen. Leahy on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the higher authorization will help Leahy push to increase NCMEC’s funding.

• Investigations – authorizes the U.S. Secret Service to provide forensic and investigative assistance to state and local law enforcement agencies and to NCMEC for investigations in cases of missing or exploited children.

• Child pornography – creates new crimes for “pandering” child porn and using child porn to entice minors into illegal activity; prohibits introducing the name of a child victim in a child pornography trial; and criminalizes distribution of “virtual” child porn, such as porn that is made from computer-generated images and is transmitted via the Internet. Some foes, such as Leahy, said certain elements of the final item would make it unlikely to pass a constitutional challenge.

• Statute of limitations – extends the time during which someone can be charged with child abduction or child sex crimes to the life of the victim.

• Sentencing – prohibits pretrial release for people charged with child rape or abduction; allows judges to extend the supervision of released sex offenders for up to life; and mandates a life sentence for someone convicted of a federal sex offense against a minor if that person had previously been convicted of a felony child sex offense.

In a statement to Congress, Leahy said the last provision would disproportionately affect young Native American men, because they can face federal charges for offenses that occur on reservations. “Sentencing commission data indicates that approximately 75 percent of cases to which the two strikes provision will be applied will involve Native Americans on reservations,” he said.

Critics also said some of the sentencing measures would wrongly limit judicial discretion. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote that the measure “would do serious harm to the basic structure of the sentencing guideline system and would seriously impair the ability of courts to impose just and responsible sentences.”

Contact: Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner, (202) 225-5101,; Sen. Patrick Leahy (202) 224-4242; Leahy’s section-by-section comments on the bill are at; National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, (703) 224-3900,