Helping Parents of Abducted Children

The recent spate of headlines regarding child abductions across the country has made parents understandably nervous about the safety of their children. The anxiety is particularly high at this time of year, when parents send their kids off to school, entrusting them to the care of others.

Of course, our thoughts and prayers are with the families of the more than 4,500 children abducted by strangers every year. Many of these crimes - the most horrific acts imaginable - are never solved.

But there is some hopeful news that has emerged this summer that might help states and localities combat these terrible crimes: the success of area AMBER (America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response) alert systems.

The first of these was created in 1996, after a 9-year-old girl in Texas was abducted and brutally murdered. Local law-enforcement officials developed a system designed to make it easier to track kidnappers much more quickly, enlisting the community’s help through the use of highway billboard notifications and broadcast messages sent throughout an area where an abduction has occurred.

This past summer we’ve seen the success of such programs in different parts of the nation, such as in the rescue of a 10-year-old girl abducted in California. Shortly after her kidnapping, an AMBER alert went out to Californians and citizens in neighboring states. She was found in Nevada, her abductor was arrested, and she was reunited with her family. In all, AMBER alerts are credited with assisting in the safe recovery of 27 children nationwide.

Not all states have AMBER alert systems, but more are expected to start implementing them. A similar program is already in place in Tucson. A statewide system for Arizona is also being contemplated.

Last week, I joined a bipartisan group of Senators to introduce legislation providing federal assistance to these efforts through the establishment of an AMBER Alert Coordinator at the Department of Justice. This office will set minimum, voluntary standards to help states choosing to participate in the program coordinate their systems more effectively with other states. The legislation also provides federal matching grants to states for highway signs, education and training programs, and equipment to facilitate implementation of systems.

These systems are important not only because they have proven effective in some circumstances, but because they are another means of empowering crime victims and giving them hope. By assisting law-enforcement officials in their efforts to aggressively pursue kidnappers, we can make families and loved ones feel a little less helpless in response to these horrific acts.

Far too often, the legal system by its nature relegates victims’ families to the background of cases that touch their lives in profoundly personal ways.

This is especially cruel when it comes to parents of missing children. They struggle to go on with their lives without ever knowing if their children are alive or dead, if they suffered, if they’ve called out for them, or if their captors will ever be found.

The suffering can be even greater when their child’s suspected abductor is actually arrested and tried for the crime, and parents are denied any input into the criminals’ punishment or sentence. John Walsh, the host of the television series “America’s Most Wanted,” understands this better than almost anyone: he also lost a child, whose kidnapping and murder changed John’s life forever.

That is why he and other crime victims have joined Senator Dianne Feinstein and me in proposing a crime victims’ rights amendment to the U.S. Constitution to guarantee violent crime victims the right to be notified and have their voices heard in criminal proceedings. While some states - such as Arizona -- accord victims substantial opportunities for involvement in cases directly affecting them, other states’ protections are far more limited in scope, and some offer victims little or no constitutional guarantees at all.

Our country needs to concentrate not only on the rights of accused criminals, but on giving greater voice, more power, and more support to victims. These legislative efforts are certainly long-needed steps in that direction.

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