Because of privacy laws, the Internal Revenue Service won't give law enforcement information that could lead to apprehending child abductors, says the New York Times. The laws, enacted in the 1970s to prevent Watergate-era abuses of confidential taxpayer information, have exceptions allowing the IRS to turn over information in child support cases and to help federal agencies determine whether an applicant qualifies for income-based federal benefits.
Guidelines on handling of criminal cases pose obstacles for parents and investigators pursuing a child abductor — even when the taxpayer in question is a fugitive and the subject of a felony warrant. "It’s one of those areas where you would hope that common sense would prevail," said Ernie Allen of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "We are talking about people who are fugitives, who have criminal warrants against them. And children who are at risk." About 200,000 family abductions are reported each year in the U.S., most stemming from custody disputes between estranged spouses. About 12,000 last longer than six months and involve parental abductors who assume false identities and travel to escape detection.
Friends and family worried that 10-year-old Zahra Baker of Hickory, N.C., was in danger, says the Charlotte Observer. They saw bruises and a black eye. They questioned her parents. They reported suspected abuse to the Department of Social Services. Police believe the missing girl whose story has captured worldwide attention is dead. They are investigating her disappearance as a homicide and last week jailed her stepmother, who they say admitted writing a phony ransom note. As the search for the girl entered its second week, the case raises fresh questions about North Carolina's long-troubled child protection system.
The state's own reviews show it's not uncommon for children to die in North Carolina under suspicious circumstances while their families are under state supervision or had recent contact with social workers. At least 137 children died during a recent five-year period in cases where abuse or neglect were suspected to have contributed - even though the state social services department had contact with their families within 12 months before they died, the Observer found. That's up from 119 deaths during the prior five years. And it comes at a time when child deaths overall in the state are at a record low. Most of the 137 died from illnesses or accidents, but at least 26 became victims of homicide, usually committed by relatives or caregivers.
All of North Carolina's new law enforcement officers should be required to undergo specialized training on child death scene investigations, the state's medical examiner and a legislative task force say, according to the Charlotte Observer. The proposal is among several prompted by an Observer series this year, "Cradle of Secrets," that looked at five years of sudden infant death syndrome cases in North Carolina and found that police frequently fail to investigate the deaths thoroughly, if at all.
Tom Vitaglione, co-chair of the N.C. Child Fatality Task Force, and Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Deborah Radisch now want the state to hire trained death scene investigators and put them in regional offices so they can respond to infant and child deaths. North Carolina doesn't have full-time trained investigators to send to most infant deaths, but a growing number of jurisdictions nationally do. Also under consideration: finding ways to push more police to use state-issued checklists when they go to death scenes. The six-page checklists could help many officers do a more thorough job, experts say. They're now optional. "I think we need standards," said Brett Loftis, a task force member and Charlotte children's rights advocate who supports the new efforts. "The inconsistency with how deaths are being handled across the state is cause for concern." The Observer's series found that most N.C. cases of SIDS, considered a natural and unpreventable death, contained evidence that suggested the babies actually might have suffocated. At least 69 percent of SIDS babies over the five-year period were in risky sleep situations. That included infants sleeping with one or more adults, on couches, adult beds, pillows and comforters, or face down.
A crackdown on child sex trafficking is being pushed by a growing movement of women's groups, celebrities, human rights activists and state officials, reports USA Today.This month, 22 state attorneys general called on Backpage.com, a classified-ad website, to close its adult-services ads after Craigslist was prodded to do so.In New York City last week, actors Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher announced their "Real Men Don't Buy Girls" campaign against child sex trafficking at the Clinton Global Initiative meeting.
In St. Louis, a lawsuit was filed against Backpage.com, claiming it helped a pimp prostitute a 14-year-old girl. The new efforts paint child prostitution as modern-day slavery, arguing it's a human rights issue rather than a free-speech one. The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children estimates that at least 100,000 American children are victimized each year, often beginning at ages 11 to 14, by criminal networks.
Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday announced a $5.5 million "Defending Childhood" initiative designed to address the exposure of children to violence as victims and as witnesses. The funding, which will support the development of programs and projects on the subject, would increase to $37 million under President Obama's proposed 2011 budget request.
The initial funding includes planning grants for eight demonstration sites to support the development of comprehensive community-based strategies to prevent and reduce the impact of children's exposure to violence in their homes, schools, and communities. The eight demonstration sites are Boston, $160,000; Portland, Maine, $160,000; Chippewa Cree Tribe of Montana, $153,210; Grand Forks, N.D., $159,967; Cuyahoga County, Ohio, $157,873; Multnomah County, Ore., $159,349; Rosebud Sioux Tribe of South Dakota, $159,534, and Shelby County, Tenn., $159,099.
Los Angeles County officials have failed to follow state law that requires them to publicly disclose child fatalities resulting from abuse or neglect, reports the Los Angeles Times, citing an independent audit released Monday. The violations involve "potentially dozens" of child fatalities, County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. He said the audit indicates "an intent to withhold information from the public" by the Department of Children and Family Services.
The finding by the Los Angeles County Office of Independent Review comes amid a growing debate about whether child welfare officials are underreporting deaths of children whose families previously had come to the department's attention. In the audit, Michael Gennaco, chief attorney for the Office of Independent Review, noted a dramatic change last year in the amount of information released by the department, with disclosure in only four of 18 cases. Gennaco said the pattern has extended into 2010. The Times has been denied in repeated public records requests for information.
After several high-profile bullying incidents, the U.S. Department of Education is hosting the first federal school bullying summit this week, reports the Christian Science Monitor. Suicides linked to bullying – including the January suicide of Phoebe Prince in Massachusetts, which has resulted in nine felony charges against her classmates – have drawn particular attention to the issue, and several states are considering or enacting anti-bullying laws.
“People are really feeling the heat now,” says David Waren of the Anti-Defamation League, noting that 43 states have now enacted some form of anti-bullying legislation. “This is the first time this kind of initiative has taken place, bringing together so many disparate elements, and there really is a hope that it will create a critical mass or tipping point  and out of that will create a more strategic and aligned and leveraged effort,” he adds.
The public knows sudden infant death syndrome as a mysterious, unpreventable death that strikes otherwise healthy babies in their sleep. But in a series of stories, the Charlotte Observer concludes that a SIDS ruling can often mask the real cause of death. Medical examiners are supposed to call deaths SIDS only after a thorough scene investigation, autopsy and review of a baby's medical history have ruled out all other causes. But in North Carolina, newborns and other infants have died face down in pillows and soft couches. They have died in adult beds alongside one or more people, or with their heads covered in blankets. In some cases, police have suspected foul play, even homicide.
North Carolina's chief medical examiner often calls those deaths SIDS. That's different from what a growing number of national experts say may be the real killer: suffocation. "SIDS has been used as an easy option," says Dr. Ljubisa Dragovic, chief medical examiner in Michigan's Oakland County, whose office rarely uses the SIDS diagnosis. "It has had a catastrophic effect. Every year babies die of preventable causes." A Charlotte Observer investigation has found that in North Carolina, two-thirds of SIDS autopsies list risks that raise the possibility that babies may have suffocated because of unsafe bedding or sleeping with another person.
On National Missing Children's Day yesterday, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance told the Wall Street Journal he had reopened the investigation into the disappearance of 6-year-old Etan Patz, the blond-haired, blue-eyed boy who disappeared 31 years ago yes terday and never returned.
Vance, who took office New Year's Day when Robert Morgenthau retired after 35 years, has directed his prosecutors to take a fresh look at a case that has haunted New York for decades. Morgenthau argued there was insufficient evidence to proceed in the case. The prime suspect in the case is Jose Ramos, who was the boyfriend of a woman who had earlier been hired to walk Etan to school during a bus strike. Ramos is in prison for molesting two boys. Etan was declared legally dead in 2001. In 2004, a judge found Ramos responsible for Etan's death in a civil case.
The father of abducted and murdered California teenager Amber Dubois is working with lawmakers to develop a series of measures, mostly to help authorities respond quickly when children are snatched off the streets, reports the San Diego Union-Tribune. “There are gaps and flaws in the system,” said Moe Dubois. “We are trying to recognize those, trying to close those with small legal patches. You can’t fix everything in one day.”
Amber was killed Feb. 13, 2009, by convicted sex offender John Gardner III, who is set to be sentenced next week to life in prison without parole. He also killed teenager Chelsea King. The legislative package on searches is expected to be unveiled May 25, a day set aside every year to mark National Missing Children’s Day. One idea he is suggesting would require child sex predators to carry driver’s licenses identifying them as such. That way, police and businesses can be alert for signs of inappropriate contact with children, such as a teddy bear in a back seat or loitering at a pizzeria during a birthday party.