Brenna Bird's free PR via a child ID program and two utility companies

Ian Miller is the author of The Scything Handbook (New Society Publishers, 2016). His writing has appeared in Mother Earth News, the apparently-now-defunct Permaculture Magazine and Seed Savers Exchange publications. He is a former semi-professional musician, having recorded and toured with numerous bands. Originally from Dubuque, he has lived in San Francisco and Austria and now resides in Decorah with his wife and two children.

On Thursday, May 18, I received an email from the Decorah Community School District’s superintendent. He wrote:

He included what appeared to be copy from a press release provided by Iowa Attorney General Brenna Bird’s office:

Sure enough, my middle schooler came home the next day with this envelope:

A few things didn’t sit right with me about this. First, the largest font was reserved for Brenna Bird’s name in all caps. (The envelopes used for the same program in Texas featured the state’s official seal, not the attorney general’s name.)

Further, the inclusion of large logos from Alliant—Decorans will not soon forget that company’s dirty tricks in quashing a potential public electrical utility—MidAmerican Energy…and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers?

And then that bottom line, “Over 1,000 children go missing everyday [sic],” which unfortunately was repeated uncritically in the email from the school superintendent.

They’re saying more than 365,000 children go missing every year? With about 73 million children under 18 in this country, that would be about 1 in 200 kids going missing every year! Which would translate to at least seven or eight missing kids every year in Decorah that I’m not hearing anything about. (I counted 171 children under 18 listed as missing on the Iowa Department of Public Safety’s website.)

Finally, the grammatical error right there at the bottom of the envelope felt like a “tell” that something fishy was going on here.

I decided to poke around and see what I could find about this program. Sure enough, ProPublica had just published an investigative piece about the National Child Identification Program in early May.

From that article by Kiah Collier and Jeremy Schwartz, I learned the actual number of children who go missing annually is about 100, according to studies by the Department of Justice. So a claim of 1,000 missing per day inflates the real number by a factor of 3,650.

It also turns out that they came up with this 1,000-per-day number only after pushback on the previous numbers they were using, which were “over 800,000 children are missing every year—that’s one every 40 seconds.” Bird parroted the made-up 800,000 figure when she announced Iowa’s participation in this program last month.

What’s more, ProPublica could find no evidence these kits have ever helped find a missing child. The kits project a vibe of being a preventative child-safety measure, but they clearly are not that. Furthermore, they do not educate children and families about avoiding dangerous situations, so could contribute to a false sense of security regarding prevention.

So what’s the deal? Why are Iowa kids carrying home these fearmongering child ID kits, with Alliant and MidAmerican covering the full $1.5 million cost, according to Bird?

It turns out former National Football League player Kenny Hansmire is the main guy behind this outfit. See the ProPublica article for a more detailed bio. The short version: the National Child Identification Program is his grift, and he’s apparently got millions of dollars in tax debt.

But since there’s no evidence that these kits are effective, why has Bird entered into a public-private partnership with Alliant and MidAmerican to distribute them to Iowa schoolchildren? Especially since the state could distribute similar kits for lower cost or even free, courtesy of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a non-profit Congress created in the 1980s?

The short answer is, nobody outside Bird’s circle knows. The ProPublica piece points out that the National Child Identification Program likes to lavish awards on cooperative politicians during halftime shows at NFL games. I’ll be curious to see if Bird receives anything like that this fall.

I hope it’s true that no public monies are being used for Iowa’s participation in the child ID program. But given past scandals in Governor Kim Reynolds’ office, I’m less than completely reassured by Bird’s statements.

And furthermore, given the prominent, front-and-center placement of Bird’s name on the kits’ envelopes, is it appropriate for private entities to be funding such a venture? Would it be OK for a private entity to pay for a public relations firm to promote an elected official?

Indeed, this whole venture comes across as a PR stunt by Iowa’s attorney general. She gets to distribute envelopes to Iowa households with her name front and center, scaring parents with made-up numbers about missing children. She’s also selling parents false hope by claiming to be doing something for children’s safety; see the large “Helping Protect Your Family” on the back side of the envelope.

In addition, Bird gets to bask in the apparent endorsement of Alliant, MidAmerican, and the IBEW. (She never mentions the electrical workers’ union when speaking publicly about this program, so I wonder to what degree they are even involved.) Who knows, maybe she’ll get some shiny award at halftime of an NFL game this fall.

Editor’s note from Laura Belin: Bleeding Heartland sought comment from the Iowa Attorney General’s office about the child ID program four times between May 9 and May 24. Is the office aware of any case where these child ID kits were used to solve a crime or identify a missing child? Did anyone on Bird’s staff do due diligence on this program before committing funds to it?

Press secretary Alyssa Brouillet did not respond to any of the messages.

Appendix: More photos by Ian Miller of materials provided in the envelope his child brought home from school.

Top photo: Attorney General Brenna Bird poses with her son, the Iowa Cubs mascot, and National Football League Hall of Famer Mike Singletary in a picture first posted on the Facebook feed of the Iowa Attorney General’s office on April 26.

About the Author(s)

Ian Miller

  • I would think that Iowa customers of Alliant and MidAmerican...

    …might have a few thoughts about this use of their money, thoughts that they might wish to share with their power providers.

  • When the truth hurts, there are other options

    AG Bird has been embarrassed a couple of times for telling the truth. Small wonder she now opts for deception.
    When she sought appointment to the Iowa Supreme Court her application raved about how great then AG Tom Miller was to work with. When she ran against him in 2022 she attacked him for not being tough on criminals, which was wrong and mis-stated the importance of enforcing criminal law in the duties of the AG —backing away from praising Miller to wrongly condemning him helped get her elected.
    She became Gov. Reynolds’ house AG when the governor was arguing that the governor need not comply with Iowa’s law on access to public records.
    The Iowa Supreme Court’s decision against Reynolds included reference to a law review article emphasizing the importance of holding government officials accountable through access to public records.
    Guess who had written that law review article? Guess whose office doesn’t want to talk honestly about missing kids?
    When the truth hurts or is merely inconvenient, Bird exercises other options.
    Herb Strentz

  • opportunistic

    Our new AG certainly found an opportunity to get her name out there with this tact.