EDITORIAL: Use Tax Data to Help Find Abducted Kids
April 23, 2011 (Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News) Stranger abductions of children grab headlines and stir community concerns about safety like few other crimes. In reality, more children are abducted by parents or guardians -- an estimated 200,000 children annually -- and often violently.
Surprisingly, these abductors often claim the kidnapped children as dependents on their income taxes. As a result, that tax form may contain the most up-to-date address of the missing kids.
Current law prohibits the Internal Revenue Service from sharing that address with law enforcement, even though it could lead to a kidnapped child's rescue. This makes no sense, especially when rescue officials aren't asking for financial information or entire tax returns.
Legislation introduced by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. -- the Access to Information About Missing Children Act -- seeks to give law enforcement access to critical location information, while protecting taxpayers' financial privacy.
The measure could help law enforcement rescue and protect kidnapped children. It also would create a means for local, state and federal crime solvers to pool resources in a timely and efficient way -- the kind of cooperation between government agencies that Americans want.
Presently, courts are the only recourse for obtaining these addresses. Too often judges are reluctant to order the data's release because, in family kidnappings, children are often taken across state lines, leaving no clear-cut jurisdiction.
"No one should be able to hide behind right to privacy claims when it means locating our abducted and missing children," Thea M. Pirnat, a Fairfax County, Va., police detective told the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee at a recent hearing.
She's right. At the same time, any law passed by Congress should be narrow and contain restrictive language to protect taxpayers' rights. For instance, law enforcement shouldn't be given open access to individuals' entire tax return, especially when financial information isn't relevant to solving abduction cases.
Taxpayer privacy laws are in place for good reason and shouldn't be taken lightly. Taxpayers rely on government confidentiality in exchange for providing the Internal Revenue Service with sensitive information about their finances. Many rightly argue that privacy fosters taxpayer compliance.
At the same time, Americans shouldn't be lulled into a false sense of privacy. The idea that the IRS doesn't share "confidential" taxpayer information is a myth. In 2009, for instance, it disclosed data from nearly 7.6 million individual taxpayers to various agencies -- up from 4.5 million returns shared in 2007, according to disclosure reports published by the Joint Committee on Taxation.
Such information sharing on civil matters is seldom questioned. Extending privileges in a restricted way on narrow criminal matters is hardly the slippery slope to breaching taxpayer privacy that the ACLU and others would have the public believe.
Remember, the address information being sought under the bill would be for individuals who have a federal criminal warrant against them. And the information won't be released to the public, but strictly to law enforcement officials working the case.
The Department of Justice reports that most of the children kidnapped by a family member are age 6 or younger. In nearly 80 percent of the cases, a biological parent commits the crime. The Klobuchar bill deserves support -- for the sake of these children.