- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 7, 2002

CRAWFORD, Texas President Bush, declaring Americans must do more to prevent children from becoming "victims of despicable acts of violence," yesterday announced two federal initiatives to increase awareness of missing, exploited and runaway children.

In a Rose Garden ceremony before departing for a 28-day working vacation on his Texas ranch, the president revealed plans to hold a conference on the issue next month. He also announced the release of a 12-page guide designed to help parents protect their children.

"During recent months, we have prayed and worried with parents as their children have been kidnapped and, in some cases, murdered. The kidnapping or murder of a child is every parent's worst nightmare," he said.

"Our nation has come to know the names and faces of too many wonderful children, because they've been the victims of despicable acts of violence, children like Danielle van Dam and Samantha Runnion. But in our sorrow, we are reminded of the incredible ability of all Americans to support one another in times of need and in times of crisis."

Mr. Bush's announcements came as prosecutors in Santa Ana, Calif., said they would seek the death penalty for Alejandro Avila, 27, who was accused of killing 5-year-old Samantha. On July 15, the girl was dragged away from a playmate by a man who asked for help in finding his puppy.

The Sept. 24 conference at George Washington University will focus on a range of topics including missing and exploited children, runaway and homeless youths, sex trafficking of children, child pornography and Internet safety, the White House said.

Participants will include members of the president's Cabinet, federal, state and local officials, law enforcement agents, corporate leaders and parents of child victims.

"This forum will bring together leading national experts to focus on ways parents and communities can help shield children from the harm that is being done to some today," the president said.

Administration officials had been working on the conference since early this year, but officials said the initiatives were expedited after a series of kidnappings and killings of little girls.

Danielle's accused killer, David Westerfield, a 50-year-old engineer, is on trial in San Diego for charges including first-degree murder and kidnapping, and could face the death penalty or life in prison if convicted in the girl's murder.

Last week, two teenage girls were grabbed at gunpoint from a lovers' lane in Southern California and raped during a 12-hour ordeal before their kidnapper was killed in a shootout with a sheriff's deputy.

The White House is releasing "Personal Safety for Children: A Guide for Parents." This guidebook was created by specialists on child safety from the Department of Justice, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Education, the FBI and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

"I urge the families to get these recommendations and to discuss the important safety tips with their children," Mr. Bush said of the book, which is available in English and Spanish at www.missingkids.com.

The White House said more than 200,000 children across the nation each year are taken by family members seeking to interfere with a parent's custodial rights. But 58,000 children are abducted by non-family members,.

"Although the vast majority of children (at least 98 percent) return from these abductions, too many children do not. In the most dangerous type of abduction stranger kidnapping fully 40 percent of children are killed," the White House said in a fact sheet on the initiatives.

Analysts say kidnappings by strangers always have been rare, and FBI statistics show the rate is falling.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates the total number of cases of abductions by strangers at 100 per year, down from 200 to 300 in the 1980s. The FBI opened investigations in 93 such cases in 2000, compared with 134 in 1999.

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