The Senate on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved legislation to extend nationwide the Amber alert system, which enlists the public's help in searching for abducted children.
The system, already in use in more than two-thirds of the states, has gained national attention for helping authorities rescue abducted children, including two California teenage girls kidnapped last August.
But especially in the critical early hours after an abduction, gaps can hamper efforts to track down children abducted in or taken to states that do not have a system for issuing alerts on radio, television and highway message signs.
"We have no greater resource than our children, and we need to see to it that we do all we can to protect them from predators," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), citing the kidnapping last June of 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart from her Salt Lake City home as illustrative of the "terrifying wave of recent child abductions that has swept our nation."
Different versions of the bill were approved by the House and the Senate last year, but the legislation died when Congress adjourned before negotiators could reconcile their differences.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), one of the bill's chief sponsors, said that she hopes the "tidal wave of Senate support will carry over to the House and we soon will have a national Amber alert law." The measure was approved, 92-0.
A spokesman for Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said his boss was pushing a "comprehensive approach that not only gets the word out when a child abduction occurs, but takes meaningful steps to prevent a child abduction in the first place" -- including a mandatory minimum 20-year prison sentence.
President Bush has taken steps to expand the alert system nationwide, including directing the Justice Department to set standards that would help states determine when an alert should be issued.
Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft announced Tuesday that he would seek $2.5 million from Congress in the 2004 fiscal year for training law-enforcement and broadcast personnel and providing radio stations with the software needed to upgrade emergency alert systems.
The Senate legislation would authorize $25 million in grants to develop the warning networks. "This bill helps fill the gaps that exist in the current patchwork of Amber systems," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), a sponsor of the bill.
The system is named for Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old who was kidnapped while riding her bicycle in Arlington, Texas, in 1996. Her body was found four days later in a drainage ditch four miles away.
Today, the system, in use in 34 states and a number of communities and regions, has aided in the rescue of 43 children, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Alexandria, Va.
In 75% of child abduction homicides, the child is dead within the first three hours, according to the center's Joann Donnellan. "We need to jump into action quickly, get this information out to the public," she said.
The alerts are generally used in the most serious child abduction cases, when a child's life is believed to be in danger.
Since California adopted Amber alerts last year, the state has issued 16 alerts and rescued 20 children.
The system gained national attention in August when the message "Child Abducted" was displayed on 500 freeway message signs across California, helping law enforcement authorities rescue two Antelope Valley teenagers from their suspected kidnapper, who was shot dead by police.