With Marc Klaas
Friday, March 14, 2003; Noon ET
Elizabeth Smart, the 15-year-old Salt Lake City teenager snatched in the night from her bedroom nine months ago, was found alive and well Wednesday. She was 15 miles from home and in the company of a drifter who had once been a handyman at her family's home. She was rescued without incident and reunited with her family.
"It's real!" her father, Ed Smart, told a crowd outside the family's church Thursday. "I can't begin to tell you how happy I am, what an absolute miracle and answer to prayers this has been." Polly Klaas's father was not so fortunate. His daughter was kidnapped from a slumber party in her home on Oct. 1, 1993. Her disappearance touched off a nationwide search that did not end until her convicted killer led police to the body weeks later.
Marc Klaas, president of MissingChildren.com and an advocate for child protection, was online Friday, March 14 at Noon ET, to talk about the Smart case, the Amber Alert system, Megan's Law and the search for missing children.
A transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
washingtonpost.com: Mr. Klaas, thank you for joining us today. How important is the media in these missing children cases?
Marc Klaas: The media is critical in missing children's cases. An excellent example is Elizabeth Smart. It was really the media that brought Elizabeth Smart home. Simply because they kept her picture in the public eye and it was ultimately a tip from a citizen that returned her to her family.
Harrisburg, Pa.: Pennsylvania does not have Amber Alert. When it was proposed, critics noted that budget gaps require cutbacks in crime prevention offices and that new homeland security requirements are further squeezing those budgets. Is there any hope the federal government will help state police offices have the funds to create Amber Alerts within their states?
Marc Klaas: Part of the proposed legislation makes $5 million available to the states in matching grants to implement Amber Alert programs. However, the Amber Alert is a program that is not necessarily dependent upon funding as it is really nothing more than a cooperative partnership between law enforcement and the electronic media.
Indianapolis, Ind.: Explain away if you can, why informed people around the Smart case took soo long to look to suspect the type of disguises worn by Smart's captures?
Marc Klaas: One of the amazing things about the Elizabeth Smart case is that she was hiding in plain sight. I believe that the Salt Lake City police are going to have an awful lot of questions to answer because as information is slowly coming out, more and more mistakes are becoming apparent.
Selma, Ala.: My question is simple: Does this entire case, in light of the latest information that has come out, strike you as just not "quite right"?
Marc Klaas: Yes.
Alexandria, Va: Do we see the Stockholm syndrome at work here?
Marc Klaas: Let me be really clear. I am not a psychologist or a psychiatrist, therefore my diagnostic opinions are probably not worth the paper they're written on. However, it appears as if she somehow was sympathetic to the people who had taken her.
Washington, D.C.: Seems to me this was less a kidnapping and more of a runaway case. Call me cynical, but the TV stations seemed to be dancing around this subject.
Marc Klaas: We have to be very careful on how we prejudge this case as we have so little information.
Manassas, Va.: I lived in Hollywood, Fla., and worked in the mall where Adam Walsh was kidnapped when I was 16. There was no cooperation between law enforcement jurisdictions then, but progress has been made in the 22 years since. What I continue to see is that the rights of predators are put ahead of childrens' rights. What will change this?
Marc Klaas: House Judiciary chairman Sensenbrenner has a comprehensive child protection plan that directly impacts this question. It contains several elements, one of which is the Amber plan but another is a two-strike law for sexual offenders against children. A third element of the chairman's child protection act mandates very long prison terms for individuals who would kidnap children.
Lansing, Mich.: Do you think it is a good thing for everyone to be tearing into the Smart case? She is a live child who has a right to privacy to heal and live a full life.
Marc Klaas: I agree totally. There are questions that need to be answered but Elizabeth should be afforded the dignity and respect that she deserves in order to put her life back together and lead a full and productive life. Whatever did or did not happen to Elizabeth Smart over the course of the last nine months is between her, the authorities and her family. It's not our business.
Ogden, Utah: It seems as if children are the last segment of society to be protected by our laws. Can you describe the Amber Alert proposal before Congress and also Megan's law? In your opinion, why is it that the Amber Alert proposal is taking so long to be passed by Congress?
Marc Klaas: Federal legislation affects a very small segment of our society directly. However, it can set important precedents and guidelines for the states to follow. There are already over 80 Amber Alert programs being implemented throughout the U.S. This was a concept that was borne in a grassroots effort to prevent future tragedies and has grown at that same grassroots level for the past seven years. The Amber Alert will continue to fascinate the public and impact our society regardless of how or when Congress finally passes the Amber Alert law.
Megan's Law has two parts: that the states are to require convicted sex offenders to register in their local communities; and that the public will have a means of accessing that information so that they can use it to protect their children.
Amber Alert as currently proposed is fraught with the same communication problems that have plagued the Elizabeth Smart case from the beginning. Police are unable to communicate with even neighboring jurisdictions, let alone crossing many state boundaries. America deserves better than a slapdash approach to a problem that affects us so personally. America should utilize the 21st century technologies to solve this oldest of problems and so far we are not doing so.
Potomac, Md.: Were there any other previous cases in which a child was taken out of his or her bedroom window while at sleep? Is it advisable to reinforce the window particularly for an one-floor house? Thanks!
Marc Klaas: My daughter Polly was kidnapped out of her bedroom. Daniel Van Dam was kidnapped out of her bedroom while she slept. Home security is an important factor. The better your security the better you'll feel.
Fairfax, Va.: What can the public learn from this experience? If it wasn't for one persons awareness and immediate call for help, Elizabeth may have never been found.
Marc Klaas: I believe the fundamental lesson of Elizabeth Smart's case is that you don't bring homeless people into your home. To reiterate another important point is that the participation of the media in missing persons cases cannot be overstated.
Springfield, Va.: Do you believe that other unsolved missing/kidnapped children cases will be solved because of this case? I've got to believe that a lot of homeless and transient families will be under a lot of scrutiny around the country.
Marc Klaas: I agree with that. I believe that a lot of homeless and transient individuals around the country are among the missing. I believe that DNA technologies will also offer great assistance in solving cold cases. Hopefully there will be a day when the remains of every missing person can be identified and peace can be brought to the minds of their families.
Washington, D.C.: This also looks like a case in which the police were diverted by a premature suspect by focusing on, what now we know to be, the wrong guy
Marc Klaas: I completely agree. There was a comment made by Tom Smart (Ed Smart's brother) two days ago in the Salt Lake City Tribune. He said the family knew that Richard Ricci wasn't the man because Mary Katherine said he wasn't the man, but the police told them not to make that information public. It's unfortunate that an innocent man died in prison under such a cloud of suspicion when it needn't have been so.
Springville, Utah: What are you thoughts on the initial search for Ms. Smart? How does a campsite so close to her home get missed when "professional" searchers are involved. And how does one go missing within the city they were abducted from?
Marc Klaas: It's unbelievable. That's a great question. I strongly encouraged the Smart family never to give up the physical searches which they gave up shortly thereafter.
Volunteer searches in a missing persons case perform several functions. Number one, they eliminate geography. Number two, they take a huge burden off of law enforcement. Number three, they give well-meaning people something constructive to do. Number four, they do aid the investigation. Number five, they give good visuals for media to report on at least once a week. And finally, they can resolve a case as occurred in the Danielle Van Dam situation.
These kinds of searches need to be conducted with professionalism and need professional leadership; however volunteers can do the actual searching as long as they're well supervised.
Plantation, Fla.: You mentioned this on TV, but it seems that the critical error was not that of the police, but rather the decision to invited drifters into the Smart home. Could you elaborate on how you feel parents should balance the idea of helping the community with the safety of their children?
Marc Klaas: That's a good question. Protecting your children from danger has to be of paramount importance. That must always be a parent's number one priority. There are numerous ways to volunteer within your community without bringing homeless derelicts into your living room.
Marc Klaas: If you want to show benevolence towards the homeless, support programs within your own community designed to release them from the bonds of poverty.
Southport, Conn: Do you find it odd that with all the opportunities she had she did not make an effort to escape her captors? Or is this part of identifying with her captors?
Marc Klaas: I do find it odd, yes. However, we should be very careful about applying our adult sensibilities to the mind of a 15-year-old girl whose life was threatened with a knife in the middle of the night in her own bedroom.
Marc Klaas: We have to be very careful not to revictimize Elizabeth Smart yet again.
Teaneck, N.J.: Why is the House padding the Amber Bill with so much that will surely slow down its passage.
Marc Klaas: A previous question wanted to know why more wasn't done to punish individuals who harm our children and these are some of the issues that the House bill is trying to address. If we are just a little bit patient, we might get a piece of legislation that protects children in many ways.
Marc Klaas: I want to thank everybody for giving me a few minutes to share my thoughts with them but remember, we will never adequately address any of the issues that we have been talking about until we put the safety of children ahead of the rights of individuals who would do them harm.
That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.
© Copyright 2003 The Washington Post Company