“I had an idea…if every child in America would send George Bush a valentine, asking him to help save children from this horrible crime, maybe it would draw some attention.” – Barb Zanussi
These words, taken from a letter to Patty and Jerry Wetterling from Patty’s sister, Barb, encouraged the volunteers at the Friends of Jacob Wetterling Office to “take heart” and launch a campaign to try and capture the heart of the head of state.
For the last three weeks volunteers have been mailing letters to teachers across the state and beyond, asking for support for a Valentine’s Day campaign.
“Make an urgent appeal to Pres. Bush on behalf of missing children,” the letter urges.
“Stronger legislation is desperately needed to get these offenders off the streets and to safeguard our children from abduction so no child in the future will have to experience what Jacob and other missing children and their families have had to endure.
“We feel the impact of thousands of heart-felt messages from our youth will encourage the president to take action immediately.”
So this Valentine’s Day, thousands of beribboned, red construction paper-and-lace entreaties will wing toward their mark – the office of the president of the United States. School children across Minnesota are cutting and pasting, wishing and hoping their prayers will not go unanswered.
Recently, Minnesota has made some legislative inroads in this territory. On Aug. 1, Gov. Rudy Perpich signed into law Rep. Steve Wenzel’s bill that provides significantly tougher sentences for violent crimes, but there is a long journey ahead.
By focusing national attention on the plight of missing children, the Valentine’s Day campaign may be making a very valuable first step.
“There are fashions in Washington,” said Jeff Muise, communications coordinator for Child Find of America. “Child abduction legislation has sort of fallen out of fashion. Right now, the war on drugs, the deficit and the homeless are at the front of the stage.”
Perhaps legislation at a national level is needed to coordinate and unify efforts to protect children. “Although there is a lot of state legislation in place, it’s not uniformly enforced from state to state, from jurisdiction to jurisdiction,” Muise said.
Some states may have more fully addressed the issues of child abduction than others. Muise pointed out in California, each district attorney’s office has a “Child Stealing Unit,” a special arm whose sole mission is to recover missing children.
Federal legislation to help prevent abductions is currently being considered in Congress. Last April, (1989) Rep. Bill Lowery of California introduced a bill which would amend federal kidnapping statutes.
According to Paulette Stevens, legislative specialist for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Lowery’s bill would provide “special rules for certain offenses involving children when the abductor is not a parent, grandparent, brother, sister, aunt, uncle or other individual having custody of the victim.
“Sentences for stranger abductions would be life imprisonment if the victim is used for pornography, is sexually abused, denied food, water, medical care or otherwise physically harmed to a life-threatening extent, sold or subjected to this conduct by another. Sentences for all other cases would be for not less than 10 years.”
Stevens was very enthusiastic about the Valentine’s Day mailing to the president.
“It’s very timely,” she said. “I think it’s wonderful. The people on Capitol Hill will love it.
“We need federal legislation dealing with restitution for victims,” she continued. “If a victim needs counseling, these types of expenses should be assessed against the offender…and we need tougher sentences.”
Stevens cited many other bills dealing with child protection issues which might benefit from the campaign as well.
Anyone wishing to support Lowery’s bill or other legislation to protect children may write their congressmen, or phone Rep. Lowery at 202-225-3201.
The Valentine’s Day campaign has already garnered a great deal of support on a national level.
Betsi Brightman, a spokesperson for the Adam Walsh Child Resource Center in Rochester, N.Y., and an advocate for legislative change, expressed her approval. “I think this is a wonderful idea. I’d like to participate in the valentine campaign myself,” she said.
Julie Cartwright, media coordinator for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, offered to enlist the assistance of a network of non-profit groups across the country in an effort to encourage additional mailings. The Kevin Collins Foundation and the Missing Children’s Network also volunteered their resources.
At home, in St. Joseph, teachers initially expressed a concern the Valentine’s Day campaign may encourage children’s fears to surface once again, but most feel the campaign is a good idea.
“We don’t really talk about Jacob quite as much as we used to in class…because some time has passed,” said Cheryl Novacinski, a first-grade teacher at Kennedy Elementary School, “But the whole thing is still very much in their thoughts. It still comes out in their writing and schoolwork.
“One little boy wrote, ‘I’ve been waiting for Jacob for a long time,'” she said. “This (Valentine’s Day campaign) may be a good way for kids to express the concerns they still have.”
Lori Voigt, who teaches second grade at Kennedy also sees the Valentine’s Day mailings as a positive thing for children.
“I like the idea,” she said. “We are really comfortable in my class dealing with the issue.”
“We need to recognize, on a national level, that child abduction is a problem and it needs to be dealt with,” she continued. “It’s wonderful for children to realize that they, as children, can do something about it, that they can have an effect.”
Students also like the idea.
“They’re really excited they get to make valentines for the president,” Novacinski said. “And they’re happy they can do something that may help Jacob, too.”
And so, children fashion arrows of love and hope. Perhaps one simple message, one heartfelt plea will pierce the hard shell of bureaucracy and reach the hearts of our lawmakers. What better Valentine’s gift could America receive?