As a parent myself, I can remember feelings of dread when I lost track of any one of my sons for even a few moments. Even as we all hope for the safe and sound return of every child who goes missing, we have to face the fact that a small number of evil individuals — child predators — attack children for their own depraved reasons.
Everyone can agree that its best to catch predators before they strike. State laws intended to crack down on child predators, like sex-offender-registry laws, can make a difference in the fight against predators, but they only go so far. Brian David Mitchell, the man prosecutors say orchestrated the 2003 kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart in Salt Lake City, Utah, lived only a small part of his adult life in Utah itself and probably could have been tracked most effectively through a national registry. Quite simply, our current state efforts don’t go far enough in bringing together data on predators.
The problem has a national scope. In all, about 60,000 children fall victim to non-family abductions each year. And, authorities only learn about one third of these abductions. To make matters worse, the Internet has created a new venue for sick individuals who target America’s children. The Department of Justice reports that of the estimated 24 million Internet users between the ages of 10 and 17, one in five receives an unwanted sexual solicitation online.
When Dateline NBC set up an Internet-based sting operation in California earlier this year, it netted more than 50 Internet sex predators in just three days. A similar effort in Virginia caught a high-school teacher and a rabbi. In both operations, many of those captured had long criminal records with prior sexual-assault convictions. These events make one thing clear: Local laws alone will not keep our kids safe from child predators.
That’s why we must mount a national effort to give both parents and law enforcement the tools they need to protect our children. We can accomplish this goal with a new bill targeting child predators that the president signed last week.
The law, officially called “The Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act,” creates a national sex-offender database that parents can search by zip code and geographic radius via the Internet. President Bush signed it on Thursday. America’s Most Wanted host John Walsh, whose son Adam was brutally murdered by a child predator in 1981, was one of the bill’s major champions. He has told me that creating this registry ranks as the single-most important thing we can do to combat child predators.
In addition to creating this registry, the law also increases the criminal penalties for violent crimes against children, provides more federal resources to combat Internet-related child crimes, and cracks down on child abuse and child pornography.
Americans should not have to live in fear of child predators. If we empower families with better information and provide law enforcement with improved tools, we can catch more predators and prevent children from becoming victims.
— Bill Frist is the U.S. Senate Majority Leader.