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Thursday, 22 August, 2002, 11:15 GMT 12:15 UK
New ideas to save kidnapped children
Tribute left at Soham in memory of the girls
Will the deaths of Holly and Jessica bring change here?

A spate of abductions in the US has prompted fresh thinking on how to rescue snatched girls and boys.
Officers hunch over computer screens furiously compiling messages to be beamed on freeway signs across California, telling drivers that 10-year-old Nichole Taylor Timmons has been snatched from the bedroom of her home.

Freeway alert
Drivers are alerted about missing Nichole
Details about her abductor and the truck he's driving are also flashed on more than 500 overhead electronic highway displays.

At the same time, the information is broadcast on television and radio along with a hotline number in an effort to enlist the public in helping get Nichole home safely.

The California Highway Patrol in Sacramento is the headquarters for the state's Child Safety Amber Alert Network, named for 9-year-old Amber Hagerman, of Texas, who was kidnapped in 1996 and later found dead.

CHP officers issue the alert
CHP officers track progress
On Tuesday, officers sprang into action after police in Nichole's hometown got in touch to say that her mother feared the girl had been snatched by a former family friend.

CHP Assistant Commissioner, Manny Padilla, says child abductions are a priority.

"We pull out all the stops. Since the Amber Alert has been implemented in California, there've been eight cases involving 11 children - all 11 have been returned safely."

The rapid response initiative is gaining popularity after several high-profile abductions.

Early success

It was first used on 12 August when two teenagers went missing. Tamara Brooks, 16, and 17-year-old Jacqueline Marris were rescued by police, who believed the pair faced certain death at the hands of their kidnapper. Roy Ratliff was cornered and shot dead in a brief gun battle with police.

Samantha Runnion
Samantha Runnion's murder sparked revulsion
The system was implemented by Governor Gray Davis after 5-year-old Samantha Runnion, from Orange County, was abducted and murdered. Critics say that had it been in place when Samantha disappeared, she could have been saved.

Such cases have put the issue firmly on the political agenda, with Republican Assemblyman George Runner championing a bill to make the use of Amber Alerts mandatory in all child abductions.

Mr Runner says that lives could have been saved if the initiative had been introduced earlier.

"We tried to introduce a bill last year to do it. It was ignored and it wasn't until after there had been a tragedy and an abduction earlier this year that the Governor began to put some things in place."

Vital to act fast

The Polly Klass Foundation, set up in honour of Polly Klass who was kidnapped from her home in 1993 and later found dead, stresses that the early hours are the most crucial in abduction cases.

Soham volunteers
Hundreds helped search for Holly and Jessica
Spokeswoman Jenni Thompson says: "The key is time and that is why the amber alert system works so well. A study showed that out of 100 kids that were abducted and murdered, they were killed within the first three hours."

The bill is expected to reach the Governor's desk at the end of next week. He has said he is inclined to sign it. If that happens, it could become law in California by the end of the month.

Others are pushing for a nationwide system. So far only 15 states use it, but it is certain to get air time when the White House convenes a conference on how to tackle child abductions next month.

Safe and sound

Back at CHP headquarters, the adrenalin is pumping hard as news filters through that Nichole has been found safe and well in Nevada and her abductor is behind bars.

TV with alert
Broadcasters co-operate by relaying the alerts
Just five hours after the alert was issued, the CHP notches up another victory.

Governor Davis expresses his relief but also prepares the public for a time when things might not end so happily.

"We are very proud that every single child that was missing was found safely after we have issued the amber alert. But we can't guarantee that will happen every time."

See also:

22 Aug 02 | Americas
02 Aug 02 | Americas
06 Aug 02 | Americas
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