Wetterling Foundation ponders its future in a political world

Nancy Sabin
Nancy Sabin, executive director of the Jacob Wetterling Foundation, says the foundation is concerned that the public isn't sure of the foundation's mission.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

The Jacob Wetterling Foundation has been instrumental in passing some of the best known child safety measures. They pushed for the AMBER alert system that broadcasters use to notify the public of a missing child. The federal Jacob Wetterling Act required states to set up registries of people who commit crimes against children. Community notification laws were also a result of the foundation's work.

Nancy Sabin, executive director of the Jacob Wetterling Foundation, says those measures have improved child safety. But she says the foundation is concerned that the public isn't sure of the foundation's mission.

"If you think you come to us when your kid is abducted by gunpoint, are you going to come to us very often and engage with us as a volunteer or a donor or somebody who wants us to come and speak? That's like inviting a mortician to a cocktail party. We have to be about child safety," Sabin says.

The Jacob Wetterling Foundation was initially set up to find Jacob Wetterling. The 11-year-old was abducted at gunpoint about a mile from his St. Joseph home in 1989. The abduction triggered the largest manhunt in Minnesota history and is one of the best known unsolved crimes in Minnesota. The foundation was created to advocate on behalf of missing children but is now focusing on other child protection issues.

Financial support is another consideration.

The most recent tax returns show foundation support decreased 9 percent from 2002 to 2003. And board members say corporate contributions are also down in recent years.

The board has been carefully considering the name change. They've held focus groups and discussed the issue with several public safety officials to gauge reaction.

Board member Larry Bussey says it's a difficult decision since Jacob Wetterling's name conjures up a powerful image.

"The power of the name cuts two ways. It means a lot to people. I think Jacob's story is very important and that's something we don't want to lose. At the same time, when people hear JWF, they have a clear image of who we are and what we do and we're trying to move beyond that," says Bussey.

Patty Wetterling resigned from the non-profit's board in 2004 and is no longer associated with the foundation. She says she and her husband suggested the name change to the board about 10 years ago but were met with some hesitancy.

"There's always some confusion when you have a foundation named after a child. Sometimes people think that's what the work is that they look for Jacob. The work broadened right away. Before we even formed the foundation, the work became bigger than Jacob," she says.

The other factor involved in the board's decision is Patty's politics. Wetterling is seeking the DFL endorsement for Congress in Minnesota's 6th District. She lost her first run for Congress in 2004 to Republican Mark Kennedy.

Board Chair Gary Gullo says some of his clients have been reluctant to attend banquets or donate money to the foundation because they didn't want to associate themselves with Wetterling's politics. He's also worried that Republican lawmakers may not support the foundation's efforts to improve child safety laws.

"We don't want to be in a political situation," says Gullo. "If we have our name associated with Patty or the foundation and Patty are associated, we don't want to get in the middle of a political battle because no one wins with that. I don't care what side of the fence you're on. You'll alienate some people."

Patty Wetterling says she hasn't heard that her political campaign has hurt the foundation's work. She says it would be a disappointment if that were the case. Several past and present board members say it has caused some confusion but is not the main reason for the possible name change.

Tim Bildsoe, who served on the board from 1998 to 2003 and was board chair for two of those years, says they discussed the name change in 2003 along with refocusing the non-profit's mission. Bildsoe says he'd be disappointed if people stopped supporting the foundation's work because of Wetterling's politics.

"I would hope that people when they look at the foundation and look at what Patty does to differentiate between what is for the best of protecting for protecting and providing a safe world for kids and supporting a political process," Bildsoe says.

The board of directors hopes to make a decision on the name change by the end of the summer.

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