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CBC Indepth - Amber Alerts

INDEPTH: MISSING CHILDREN

Amber Alert FAQs

Gary Graves and Justin Thompson, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) News Online, Updated October 21, 2003

Amber Hagerman
Amber Hagerman

What is Amber?
Amber is an alert system established in the United States – and since adopted in Canada – to publicize child abductions. It uses electronic highway signs and designated local broadcasters to announce the child's name and description, and the description of any vehicle suspected to be involved in the abduction. It's named after a Texas girl, Amber Hagerman, who was kidnapped and murdered near Dallas. The umbrella agency that oversees Amber has created the acronym for "America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response." The Hagerman murder remains unsolved.

How does Amber work?
When a child abduction occurs in a region where Amber is operating, police prepare an alert containing information such as the child's and/or abductor's description and other relevant information. A special press release is sent to television and radio stations designated as "Emergency Broadcasters" under the protocols set up during the Cold War. American broadcast regulations specify the stations must respond to this alert in a similar manner to dangerous weather warnings or other civil emergencies. Getting the alert on the air immediately is a priority, as time is a factor in safe child rescues. Radio stations interrupt programming; TV stations show a text "crawl" along the bottom of the screen. Roadside traffic pixel signs may show text or photos, depending on the technology.

How widespread is the Amber network in the U.S.?
In April 2003, U.S. President George W. Bush signed legislation to expand the Amber alert program countrywide. At the time of signing, 41 states already had Amber programs in place. As of July 2004, 49 states have statewide Amber Alert systems in place. The Honolulu Police Department has a similar program, but it is not statewide in Hawaii.

In the U.S., only the most serious cases of child abduction are reported to the FBI. Here are its recent statistics.
Year Cases
1999 134
2000 106
2001 93
2002 62 to June

What are the criteria for an alert?
Each jurisdiction that establishes an Amber system is free to do whatever it wants; this has led to some criticism. In the U.S., the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) suggests three criteria that should be met before activating an alert:

  • police can confirm a child abduction has occurred
  • officials believe the child is in danger of serious bodily harm or death
  • there is enough information about the child and/or abductor(s) that an immediate alert will help

In Texas, for example, child custody disputes often don't qualify for an alert. Across that state, alerts are issued for children 17 and under. Locally, alerts may be issued for youth aged 15 and under. The priority is given to children abducted by strangers, since U.S. statistics show that in these cases children are in the gravest danger.

In some jurisdictions, Amber has been used to send alerts about missing people with Alzheimer's or other disabilities.

Holly Jones
Ten-year-old Holly Jones was abducted in Toronto on May 12, 2003. Her remains were found the next morning.

What are the benefits of Amber?
As of May 15, 2004, the Amber Alert program is credited with finding 154 children in the U.S. and Canada since the system's inception in 1997. Most of the results are anecdotal, as no direct statistics connecting the program to successful rescues have been kept. In some jurisdictions, Amber has been credited with what has been called "exceptionally fast" rescue of abducted children. In 2002, a child lured into a stolen ambulance was rescued within three hours of the alert being issued. Speed is a factor in child safety, as U.S. Justice Department statistics suggest that in cases of so-called "stranger abductions," children are three times as likely to be murdered, and often within the first six hours.

What are the criticisms of Amber?
James Alan Fox, a noted American expert on kidnapping and murder, wrote in The New York Times that the system has the potential to stir up mayhem such as vigilante hysteria and dangerous car chases. Also, he claims, too many alerts could water down their impact and create apathy.

Some police officials agree that with the power of Amber, less is Read More ..Fewer alerts and strict enforcement of guidelines mean that the public respond better because they understand alerts are issued only after serious consideration. Texas sheriff Dee Anderson has told The Dallas Morning News that his program had to tighten its rules for activating alerts after people complained that police had once issued six bulletins in five weeks. Now, a Texas police committee overseeing Amber sends reminder letters to departments that don't adhere to the guidelines.

A final criticism is that cases of child abduction classified as "very serious" by U.S. police appear to be on the decline, and that the Amber system is a lot of infrastructure for little return. However, the FBI warns that different jurisdictions have different reporting policies and, since the numbers are so similar from year to year, no trend can be inferred. But public perception, due to an abundance of media reports about individual cases and publicity over recent successes of the Amber system, has been that child abductions are widespread and frequent.