Wider net cast for Amber Alerts

National Center for Missing and Exploited Children

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President Bush signed a measure into law April 30 that would establish a nationwide communications network to help recover missing or abducted children and teenagers.

The new law, called the Protect Act of 2003, strengthens and expands Amber Alert programs already established in 41 states. Amber Alerts use the Emergency Alert System (EAS) to quickly disseminate information via radio, TV, the Internet and even electronic highway billboards. Amber programs have been credited with saving the lives of 64 children.

"It is important to expand the Amber Alert systems so police and sheriffs' departments gain thousands or even millions of allies in the search for missing children," said Bush during the White House Rose Garden signing ceremony. "Every person who would think of abducting a child can know that a wide net will be cast."

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), the law provides $30 million from the Justice and Transportation departments to expand and enhance the 91 current local, regional, and statewide programs. The money will develop law enforcement and broadcaster training programs and improve the EAS.

Among other things, the law also imposes stiffer penalties on child sex offenders; prohibits supply or solicitation of anything purported to be child pornography, including computer-generated images; makes it a federal crime to use a misleading Internet domain name to trick adults or minors into viewing obscene material; and requires child pornographers to register in the National Sex Offender Registry.

The new law is part of a continuing fight against such crimes. Last year, America Online Inc. partnered with NCMEC to provide subscribers with alerts via e-mail, mobile phones, pagers or its instant messaging service about abductions. Another company, Fine Point Technologies Inc. also developed software to carry such alerts.

Last October, Bush directed the Justice and Transportation departments to develop training and education programs to expand Amber, coordinated through the Office of Justice Programs. Attorney General John Ashcroft also appointed an Amber Alert coordinator to oversee the nationwide effort. The new law formally establishes the position, and the coordinator is responsible to set clear and uniform voluntary standards across the country.

The Amber Alert program, created in 1996, was named after 9-year-old Amber Hagerman, who was kidnapped and murdered in Arlington, Texas. Her mother was at the signing ceremony, as was 15-year-old Elizabeth Smart who was abducted and held for nine months after being kidnapped from her bedroom in Salt Lake City.

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