Missing Children Leave Safer Legacy

When California Governor Gray Davis recently announced a new system for notifying the public about children missing and believed to be in danger, he had no idea it would be used so quickly and with such dramatic results. Yesterday (8/1) officials credited the system with helping to find and rescue two girls abducted near Lancaster, California. Radio and television stations carried bulletins and electronic highway information signs posted the license number of the abductor's vehicle. "It [the system] worked wonderfully," Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriff Larry Waldie told USA Today.

California is not the only state to adopt the system.

A Delaware lawmaker and Virginia Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore have also announced plans to pursue programs already active in 12 states that trigger emergency radio and television broadcasts with information about the missing child and suspected kidnapper along with police contact information.

Most of these states have adopted the programs within the last year. New Jersey and Wisconsin hope to have similar alert systems in place within a few months.

The AMBER America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response - alerts operate on the same emergency system now used to warn communities about tornadoes or severe storms.

"Our goal is to get it into all the states," said corporate relations director Dave Shapiro of the Alexandria, Va.-based National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which promotes the programs.

The programs allow "law enforcement to put out that message that we're looking for this child and give the community the ability through its eyes and ears to see something and call it in," he said.

Named after Texas 9-year old Amber Hagerman who was kidnapped and murdered in the Dallas suburbs in 1996, the alerts are issued to participating radio and TV stations once police have determined that a child has been taken, is at risk of injury or death and they have enough information to make the alert effective.

Every state in the country operates a clearinghouse of information on missing children, usually out of the state attorney general's office.

The new alert systems buy time where investigators need it most, in the first hours after a child disappears. Law enforcement officials in the 41 state and local jurisdictions that have built the quick-response networks credit them with carving hours off the time it would have taken to draft a press release and distribute it to broadcast news outlets in the past.

Radio stations interrupt programming with the official bulletins while TV viewers see messages scroll across the bottom of their screens with a picture of the missing child, if available.

In June, Utah officials issued the first alert under their new system within hours of the disappearance of 14-year old Elizabeth Smart, who was allegedly taken from her bedroom in the middle of the night.

Smart is still missing and police are following leads to track down suspects in her disappearance. But speedier alerts are credited with playing a role in the safe recovery of other children, including a one-year old Pittsburgh boy earlier this month.

Shapiro said AMBER and related alerts have led to the rescue of 17 children over the last six years.

"We had a woman down in Arlington, Texas, who heard the AMBER alert on her radio ... and the car and license plate they were calling on was right in front of her. She called law enforcement and they rescued the child," he said.

Davis announced a voluntary version of the AMBER alerts Tuesday and says he supports legislation that would make the program mandatory in cities and counties throughout California. On Thursday (7/25), he pledged the use of the state's 1,000-plus electronic highway message signs to broaden the reach of missing child bulletins.

In Virginia, Kilgore will also promote Code Adam - a program created by the Wal-Mart department store chain to help parents find children lost in their stores - and push for legislation that would adopt it as policy in all state buildings.

Dozens of businesses around the country have adopted Code Adam, which announces a child's disappearance over the store's public address system and posts employees at exits to prevent the child from leaving the store. Managers call police if the child is not found within 10 minutes.

Law enforcement and public safety officials in eleven states actively promote the program, named for 6-year old Adam Walsh who was taken from a California shopping mall and killed in 1981, with local police and businesses.

Shapiro says he believes that both the use of highway signs in California and the proposed application of Code Adam to state government buildings in Virginia would be the first time states had taken these steps to protect children

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