Driving north on Interstate 5 recently I noticed an Oregon Department of Transportation sign lit up on the right side. Expecting to see, “Accident Ahead” or “Road Construction”, I was surprised when the lights displayed “AMBER Alert” followed by a description of a child, a suspect and a vehicle. Thinking about the amount of cars that will drive by this one sign seeing the message, as well as, all the other methods of transmitting information when a child is abducted made me realize we have come a long way since Amber.
On January 13, 1996, 9 year old Amber Hagerman went missing from Arlington (TX). She had been riding her bicycle with her 5 year old brother when a man pulled up beside her in a dark pick-up truck and snatched her. Although the incident was witnessed by a 78 year old neighbor and an immediate search began, Amber’s body was discovered four days later only a few miles from where she had been kidnapped. An autopsy showed she had most likely been held alive for two days, sexually assaulted and then stabbed to death. A nation mourned with her family and friends. Then a call came in to a Dallas radio station asking why the local police can’t team up with the local media to put out information quickly to the public when a child is abducted. The response to that question was the birth of the AMBER Alert.
According to the DOJ, 75% of children abducted by strangers are killed within the first 3 hours. This is why it is so important to get information out on a mass scale as quickly as possible. The Dallas Amber Alert soon became national renamed: America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response (AMBER). The system is a partnership between law enforcement and local broadcasters used when a child has been abducted and is imminent danger. Along with primary distribution channels, secondary channels are used as well labeled, AMBER Alert Secondary Distribution (AASD) Program. All these channels include internet providers, outdoor digital signage systems, coordinated highway networks, public and private employers, radio, TV, lottery, airports, trucking carriers and truck stops, retail carriers, Yahoo, Facebook, AOL, and the wireless industry.
Currently, the Office of Justice Programs (OJP) and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) work together on getting the word out about the program. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) is the lead federal office supporting activities with public safety partners. All 50 states, District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands have AMBER Alert plans establishing nationwide communication and plans. The program has also been expanded into Canada, Mexico, many European countries and numerous others around the world. Tribal nations are also working on plans to address their unique territory and needs. In April of 2003, the PROTECT Act statutorily established the AMBER Alert Coordinator’s role.
One of the questions asked when talking about the AMBER Alert is how does a jurisdiction decide to put out an alert in a timely fashion especially considering the need for quick decisions and even quicker communication. Even though each jurisdiction is given leeway to establish their own plan, OJJDP makes the following recommendations to increase uniformity:
- Law Enforcement Confirms Abduction-The first thing that has to happen is a law enforcement agency has to confirm that an abduction occurred. This is a category where each situation is looked at individually. Each agency uses a “best judgment” approach, based on the evidence, to determine if the child missing is the result of an abduction, regardless of whether the abductor is a stranger or a person known to the child. The agency determines notification is appropriate and necessary.
- Risk of Serious Bodily Injury or Death-Because time is of the essence especially in the matter of a stranger abduction, jurisdictions need to be able to determine if the child is in serious danger. Timely, accurate information needs to be based on strict and clearly understood criteria. This is critical especially concerning those domestic abductions that have dangerous elements in them. Just because the abductor is mom or dad does not mean that the child is not going to be seriously injured or killed if not found quickly.
- Sufficient Descriptive Information-A case must have as much descriptive information about the abducted child and the abduction, as well as, the suspect and vehicle, if appropriate. If an AMBER Alert is broadcast without any identifying information, the alert will be ignored and runs the risk of diluting the effect of future alerts.
- Age of Child-This is a category that is definitely determined by individual jurisdictional plans. The OJJDP recommends that each state have a “17 years of age or younger” minimum standard which has been adopted by every state. Individual states do vary with the youngest maximum currently being 10. When an alert crosses state lines most states will honor the age criterion of the sending state even if it is older than the criterion for the receiving state.
- NCIC data entry-Federal recommendations ask that immediate entry with a child abduction flag is put into NCIC even if the state’s regulations don’t require this step. Without this done quickly, the whole system is undermined.
Since 1996, many things have changed. AMBER Alert is a household term. As technology increases, there are more ways for an alert to be broadcast than ever before. In late 2012, Google Public Alerts/Google Maps/Google Search all became partners with AMBER Alert notifying users of alerts in certain areas. Mass emergency notifications can be sent to all kinds of wireless devices. There is even an AMBER Alert app. There are some critics who believe that the research doesn’t support the program making a difference in behavior and there is some concern that not following listed recommendations makes the public desensitized to the alerts but in all awareness of the time critical nature of child abduction has increased. Due to the innovations and the dedicated people who have worked on spreading the word, as of March 2015, 745 children have been recovered due to AMBER Alert. I will end with a success story:
Feb. 22, 2015 - Texas
A 6-year-old girl went missing from her home in the middle of the night. The child was last seen in bed, but when the family checked on her, she was gone. A male acquaintance staying with them was also missing, along with the family’s van. An AMBER Alert was activated, including the use of cell phone messages via wireless emergency alerts with a description and license plate for the vehicle. A clerk at a gas station saw the alert and recognized the vehicle, along with a suspicious man and a girl he claimed was his daughter. This information enabled police to focus their search efforts and locate the vehicle. The child was safely recovered and the abductor was arrested.