Thank you Bob. And thanks to all those at the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention who helped put today’s event together.
Twenty-five years ago this week, President Ronald Reagan established the first National Missing Children’s Day. The President’s proclamation read, and I quote: “Our children are the Nation's most valuable and most vulnerable asset. They are our link to the future, our hope for a better life. Their protection and safety must be one of our highest priorities.”
Today, we gather, as Americans have every year since President Reagan wrote those words 25 years ago, to reaffirm that commitment – to celebrate the work we have done to promote the protection and safety of our children, and to ensure that President Reagan’s call for “decisive action” does not go unheeded.
When I became Attorney General, one of the first things I did was to visit our Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section, and to meet with the dedicated people who are investigating and prosecuting crimes against children.
As a judge I presided over a handful of those cases, so I was well aware that there are people who seek to lure children for sexual contact. Still, my visit was eye-opening.
At that meeting, the team gave me a battle patch—the kind they give to prosecutors in the office after they’ve tried one of these cases. I was proud to accept that patch, as a trust rather than as a trophy. These are difficult cases, the kind that stick with you long after the verdict is in. The men and women in that office earn their battle patches every day.
A few days after that visit, I went down to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Alexandria. I met with Ernie Allen and some of his staff, and I saw the outstanding work they do there. I saw the age progression unit, where they use technology to create an image of what a missing child might look like years later. And I saw their Wall of Recent Recoveries, where they celebrate success stories of children found and cases solved. Of all the monuments and memorials I've seen in Washington, and I’ve seen a lot of them...that wall may be one of the most uplifting and hopeful monuments I've come across.
I visited these two groups in my first month in office because I wanted to make sure there was no misunderstanding about where this subject stood in my mind and heart. I know that crimes against children have been a priority at the Justice Department, and I wanted everyone to know that they would remain a priority.
The taking of a child is a singularly wicked crime. What starts as a moment of uncertainty for a victim's loved ones metastasizes into a horror that can't be explained to anyone who hasn't shared it, and can never be repaired. There are few challenges that we in law enforcement take on where it can so clearly be said that we are fighting on the side of angels. And few that can make us feel so helpless. But the work of the Department in this area, and the work of our partners at the state and local level and in the non-profit sector – the work of today's award recipients and all of you – is a compelling argument that we are not helpless. We are engaged in the fight, and we are pressing onward.
A few days ago, the Department marked the second anniversary of Project Safe Childhood. That initiative was started because the Department recognized that technology like the Internet had become fertile ground for predators; and it would take a unified effort -- built on partnerships among federal, state and local authorities -- to defeat those predators.
The mission of Project Safe Childhood is, simply put: to protect children from online exploitation and abuse.
In times past, when parents thought about threats to their children's safety, they feared what might happen on the walk home from school, or at the playground. But the reality has shifted; home is no longer the sanctuary that it used to be. By simply logging on to the Internet, children open themselves to new and hidden threats. The online game or chat room parents see as an entertaining diversion for their kids after homework, might actually be a hiding place for adult pedophiles. E-mail can be turned into a tool of deceit and abduction.
That's what happened to a 13-year-old girl from Michigan, whose difficult home life led her to seek friends in cyberspace. There she met someone she thought was a teenager from Texas, who was exactly the person she was looking for: someone who would treat her well, tell her what she wanted to hear, and love her.
After months of manipulating the girl, the man posing as a teenage friend travelled to Michigan and began sneaking into her basement bedroom late at night. Over the course of a week, he had sex with her multiple times, and convinced her to run away and marry him. She left a note, and disappeared.
Luckily, when the AMBER alert went out the next morning, an alert sheriff's deputy remembered the man from a traffic stop two days earlier, and police traced the girl and her abductor to a local motel. The culprit turned out to be a 27-year-old man with a wife, two kids, and a history of domestic violence. He also had a gun. A search of the room and his car turned up scales and cell phones with traces of cocaine, and computers containing thousands of images and videos of child sexual abuse.
He was initially charged by state authorities, but their sentencing options were weak in comparison to what we could get under federal guidelines, so our U.S. Attorney's office took on the case. The defendant pleaded guilty, the victim didn't have to testify, and he now faces a sentence of 17 to 25 years in prison.
That's exactly what Project Safe Childhood was designed to do: to get federal authorities working in cooperation with our state and local counterparts to bring the strongest possible investigation and prosecution. It's not about who gets the credit -- some things in life are more important than that. The protection of our children is surely one of those things.
The results of our collaboration speak for themselves. Our offices filed more than 2,100 Project Safe Childhood indictments in fiscal year 2007, a 28 percent increase over the year before. Our Internet Crimes Against Children Task Forces made 2,354 arrests for online child exploitation crimes, a 15 percent increase over 2006. And the AMBER Alert system, now covering all 50 states and beyond, has resulted in the rescue and return to safety of almost 400 abducted children.
We're not pausing to rest, though, because even one missing or exploited child is one too many. Recently we announced 43 new Assistant U.S. Attorney positions across the country, to bring more of these cases, and get more of these criminals away from our children.
We've also been active on the prevention side of the equation, because it is far better to keep children from becoming victims in the first place than to try finding them after they've been taken. The Department sponsors several programs to help educate parents about how to keep their kids safe on the Internet. One of those, called "Think Before You Post," has received tens of millions of dollars worth of donated media time since it was launched last year.
Project Safe Childhood addresses a compelling and righteous cause. We created it in response to a true public safety threat. That threat continues, and so our work continues.
The kind of success we've had does not happen by accident. It happens because law enforcement and others, at all levels, are talking with each other and working in cooperation. This is a strong, nationwide coalition of the committed—with many partners dedicated to supporting each other and pulling together toward our simple goal of making childhood the safe and hopeful time it should be.
We must keep vivid in our minds the need to protect our children, that “most valuable and most vulnerable asset” that President Reagan spoke of 25 years ago. And we must also keep in our minds those missing children who have not yet returned home -- after we're done here this afternoon; after the chairs have been stacked up and put away; after this National Missing Children's Day is over. This can't be just an event we hold every May -- it has to be an urgent priority all year long.
I know that each of you shares that commitment. I thank you for your hard work, and I know your country thanks you as well.