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MBER Americas Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response Alerts are public announcements that are designed to help safely recover abducted children from their kidnappers and return them safely to their families. Multiple media sources are solicited in order to increase the alert, broadcasting basic information about the victim and offender. Over the last ten years, AMBER Alert has been established in all 50 states, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands (U.S. DOJ - Office of Justice Programs 1, 2012). It has also expanded internationally to Australia, Canada, France, Malaysia and many other countries. This criminal justice policy is discussed throughout this paper including the history and development, goals, current implementation, positives and negatives, and contemporary research and data.
History & Development
Amber Hagerman was a nine year old girl riding her bicycle in Arlington, Texas, on January 13th, 1996, when a neighbor heard her scream (National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, 2012). The neighbor witnessed a man pull Amber off her bicycle, throw her in his truck, and speed away. The neighbor immediately called police providing a description of the suspect and his vehicle. Arlington Police in coordination with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) started to interview other neighbors and search for the suspect. Local media broadcasters aired the story providing critical details about the suspect to the public, hoping to raise the awareness about the missing child. It was four days later that her body was recovered in a drainage ditch four miles away from the abduction. To this day the kidnapping and murder of Amber Hagerman remains unsolved.
As the Arlington community mourned the death of Amber Hagerman, an autopsy report srevealed that she had been sexually assaulted then murdered. After hearing about the sexual assault of their daughter, Amber's parents, Richard Hagerman and Donna Whitson started the organization People Against Sex Offenders (P.A.S.O). Their goal was to collect enough signatures to force, then, Governor George Bush Jr. and local legislature into passing more rigorous laws for the protection of children (Wikipedia, 2012). With the abundance of local media coverage Amber's case was receiving, her parents were offered an office space at the God's Place International Church. Local companies donated office supplies, including computer and internet service, in order to help the Hagerman's find the suspect.
Texas congressman Martin Frost along with Marc Klaas, whose daughter was also abducted and murdered in 1993, drafted the Amber Hagerman Child Protection Act (Wikipedia, 2012). Immediately after the Act was drafted, Amber's father Richard and friend Bruce Seybert was invited to attend a media symposium as a guest speaker. Seybert took the opportunity to educate event invitees about the important collaboration between law enforcement and the media, to help aid the safe recovery of missing and abducted children. After the symposium, Seybert's idea launched the AMBER Alert system and in October 1996 President Bill Clinton signed into law Amber Hagerman Child Protection Act (Wikipedia, 2012). The AMBER Alert program gained so much national recognition; it was now time for community members, media broadcasters and law enforcement to develop the logistics of the program.
The AMBER Alert Program is a voluntary partnership involving law enforcement, broadcasters, transportation agencies, and the wireless industry (U.S. DOJ - Office of Justice Programs 3, 2012). The program is designed to quickly broadcast accurate information about the missing child, suspect, and the vehicle used during the abduction. When an AMBER Alert is issued, local law enforcement agencies are notified, media contacts begin broadcasting notifications and lastly, highway signs are updated to assist the community in finding the child and perpetrator.
Throughout the development of this program, it has been important to identify key stakeholders and partners that play a vital role during an alert. The program's success and effectiveness depends of the involvement of critical stakeholders such as law enforcement, media, highway patrol, emergency 911 centers, Attorney General Offices, wireless providers, internet service providers, etc. (U.S. DOJ - Office of Justice Programs 3, 2012). Local community leaders also help by ensuring that the AMBER Alert program is active in their community; encouraging legislature to establish the necessary policies and criteria for missing children. Throughout the development of the AMBER Alert system the goals of the program have always remained the same.
The goal of an AMBERT Alert is to motivate the community to assist in the search and save return of an abducted child (U.S. DOJ - Office of Justice Programs 1, 2012). Studies have shown that time is always of the essence when a child is abducted. According to the Office of Justice Programs, of the abducted children who were killed; forty-four percent are killed within the first hour, seventy-four percent are killed within the first three hours, and ninety-one percent are killed within the first twenty-four hours (U.S. DOJ - Office of Justice Programs 3, 2012). It has been a continuous goal from the Office of Justice Programs to turn this statistic around and they have noticed that with the community's eyes and ears, children's lives can be saved.
In 2003, President George W. Bush signed the PROTECT (Prosecutorial Remedies and Other Tools to end the Exploitation of Children Today) Act into law (National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, 2012). The PROTECT Act strengthened law enforcements ability to prevent, prosecute and punish violent crimes committed against children (U.S. DOJ - Office of Justice Programs 3, 2012). President Bush, a Texas native, strongly supported the AMBER Alert program and believed that national coordination was imperative. From the President's guidance, the Office of Justice Programs named the Assistant Attorney General, the national AMBER Alert coordinator (National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, 2012). In the PROTECT Act of 2003 he encouraged the future development of the AMBER Alert program including instructions for issuance and dissemination.
Like any successful program, effective implementation depends on the policy and procedures established. The Office of Justice Programs have clearly defined activation criteria designed to achieve a uniformed network of plans nationally; minimizing delays and confusion (U.S. DOJ - Office of Justice Programs 2, 2012). Below are the five established criteria recommendations:
AMBER plans require that law enforcement confirm a child has been abducted before issuing and alert (U.S. DOJ - Office of Justice Programs 2, 2012). According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, once it is determined that a child has been abducted, law enforcement classifies the case as one of the four types listed below (National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, 2012):
FA (Family Abduction) - A family abduction is defined as the taking, retention, or concealment of a child or children, younger than 18 years of age, by a parent, other family member, or his or her agent, in derogation of the custody rights, including visitation rights, of another parent or family member.
NFA (Nonfamily Abduction) - A nonfamily abduction is defined as the coerced and unauthorized taking of a child younger than the age of 18 or the luring of a child for the purpose of committing another crime by someone not related to the child by blood or marriage.
LIM (Lost, Injured, or Otherwise Missing) - Lost, Injured, or Otherwise Missing is defined as any missing child younger than the age of 18 where there are insufficient facts to determine the cause of the child's disappearance or any child 10 years of age or younger who is missing on his or her own accord. These children are also referred to as "Endangered Missing."
ERU (Endangered Runaway) - Any missing individual between 11 and 17 years of age, who is missing on his or her own accord, without permission from his or her parent or legal guardian.
With this information they are able to know what level of danger the child is in. Stranger abductions are the most dangerous and have always been the primary mission of the AMBER Alert program. If law enforcement was to issue an alert without the proper verification that the child has been abducted, the system can be weakened by misuse and ultimately be ineffective. In some cases, the information provided is scarce and a judgment ("best judgement") call must be made quickly based on the evidence provided.
AMBER plans also require that a child be at risk of serious bodily harm or death before an alert is issued (U.S. DOJ - Office of Justice Programs 2, 2012). It is the responsibility of law enforcement to determine if the element of harm or death is present. It is important that information provided to law enforcement be accurate and concise; helping them make a clear decision if in fact the child is at risk. Once again, we must keep in mind that in some cases "best judgment" must be used with limited time and information.
The successful recovery of a missing child depends on the amount of sufficient information provided to law enforcement. An AMBER Alert must be equipped with enough information so that when it is publicized it will enhance law enforcements efforts in locating the missing child and suspect (U.S. DOJ - Office of Justice Programs 2, 2012). This requires that law enforcement obtain descriptive information about the abducted child, suspect and last but not least the vehicle used in the abduction. Once again, if an alert is issued without sufficient information, the system can be weakened by misuse and ultimately be ineffective.
Each state has discretion to classify the age of child according to their own state law, nationally it is encouraged that the child be seventeen years of age or younger before an alert is issued (U.S. DOJ - Office of Justice Programs 2, 2012). Nationally, an honor system exists that in the event that a case does not meet the age criteria in a neighboring state where it is believed the suspect could have fled too, the neighboring state will still issue an AMBER Alert. The element of confusion exists between states because they each have jurisdiction to determine what age can a child be classified as missing or abducted. When law enforcement believe that as suspect could have fled state lines, it is important that neighboring states and jurisdictions uphold the honor system and issue an AMBER Alert immediately. Through clear and concise communication, confusion could be eliminated. The overuse of this system will reduce the effectiveness of safely recovering abducted children.
When an AMBER Alert is issued it is imperative that the data provided be entered into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) system (U.S. DOJ - Office of Justice Programs 2, 2012). All information about the child abduction should be recorded and the case needs to be flagged as child abduction in the system; so that other law enforcement agencies will be notified. Some AMBER Alert plans do not require that this information be entered into the NCIC system, but without this crucial action, your case is limited locally; undermining the entire mission of the program. Once an entry is entered into NCIC, your search immediately expands from a local, state, regional level to a national level.
In summary, there are five recommended criteria before an AMBER Alert is activated: there needs to be evidence that an abduction has occurred, law enforcement believes that a child is in danger or serious bodily harm, there is enough descriptive information about the child and suspect, the child is seventeen years or younger, and the case information has been entered into the NCIC system. It is essential that every program is evaluated for its effectiveness highlighting the positives and negatives in the system.
Positives & Negatives
The majority of society will agree that the mission and goal of the AMBER Alert program is positive. This program brings multiple groups and agencies together working towards one common goal of recovering an abducted child. In particular the relationship between law enforcement and the media has effectively improved over the years. The media has proven to be a vital partner in the search for a missing child (U.S. DOJ - Office of Justice Programs 3, 2012). Once an AMBER Alert has been activated, broadcasters who have a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with law enforcement will immediately start publicizing all information provided about the case. The MOU is in existence to strengthen the relationship of the both parties and ensure that everyone knows their roles and responsibilities.
As our society has advanced with technology, so has the AMBER Alert program with the creation of the wireless alert initiative (U.S. DOJ - Office of Justice Programs 4, 2012).The partnership between the U.S. Department of Justice, wireless carriers, and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), to distribute alerts to all wireless subscribers who opt in to receive a text message notification. In recognition of the chilling fact that the first three hours after abduction are crucial, wireless technology helps expand the search of the missing child, beyond law enforcement and the media. This wireless initiative will be a catalyst for more than 200 million wireless subscribers to help in the safe recovery of missing children (U.S. DOJ - Office of Justice Programs 4, 2012).
It is always a positive when a child is safely recovered and returned to their parents. The AMBER Alert program has helped to save 595 children nationwide and over ninety percent of those recoveries have happened after President Bush appointed a national coordinator in October 2002 (U.S. DOJ - Office of Justice Programs 1, 2012). Since the appointment of a national coordinator, the process of recovering a missing child has been streamlined and inconsistencies have subsided.
The AMBER Alert program has significantly evolved and it has positively proved to be a deterrent to those who prey upon children (U.S. DOJ - Office of Justice Programs 1, 2012). In some cases, the perpetrator releases the child after hearing and seeing the AMBER Alert on the news, radio, television, or highway signs. It is hopeful that the alert will continue to have this effect on perpetrators and also spread awareness to families about child safety.
With the program gaining so much national recognition, one negative that some States have experienced is their frustration with the criteria required in order to activate an alert. Precisely the information that is required takes a long time to obtain and verify the facts. According to Child Safety for Parents (2012), the FBI receives more than 2,000 reports of missing children every day in the United States alone (Jannie, 2012). The criteria set-up by the U.S. DOJ is to help classify the severity of each and then issue an alert. If 2,000 alerts were issued daily, the AMBER Alert system would be completely ineffective and no one would pay attention.
Another negative of the program is communication barriers. On occasion the communication between law enforcement and the media still has its "kinks" that needs to be worked out but with the recent MOU's in place it has improved (U.S. DOJ - Office of Justice Programs 3, 2012). There are certain stipulations in the MOU that protects not only the integrity of the AMBER Alert program but also law enforcement and the media. During the annual AMBER Alert conference, suggestions are offered in regards to improving the communication between both parties; the conclusion has always been that communication improves with time and experience.
Last but not least, a definite negative for law enforcement is to encounter cases in which an alert has been made and they later determined that it is either unfounded or a hoax (National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, 2012). A hoax is defined as a case where a child is falsely reported as missing and an unfounded is defined as a child was never missing after investigation. In either event cases such as these weaken the effectiveness of the alert system and can cause a tremendous amount of confusion. Like everything else is the world improvement is always needed and that is true also for the AMBER Alert program.
The national AMBER Alert coordinator, in collaboration with an advisory group, has developed a strategy to help improve the alert system. The strategy focuses to increase the likelihood that missing children will be recovered safely. The three components of the strategy are (U.S. DOJ - Office of Justice Programs 5, 2012):
Assess Current AMBER Activity
Determine number of local, statewide, and regional plans
Compare plan operations and AMBER Alert criteria
Evaluate available technology
Create a Coordinated AMBER Network
Develop guidance on criteria for issuing an AMBER Alert
Establish federal, state, and local partnerships
Promote technological compatibility among communications systems
Communicate Lessons Learned
Work with law enforcement and broadcasters on missing children issues and the proper issuance of AMBER Alerts
Help states and communities develop and enhance their AMBER plans
Raise public awareness on how to protect children and prevent abductions
With the national strategy in place, each state has the opportunity to evaluate their current system and see how they can replicate it at a state level. One the most important components of the national strategy are communicating lessons learned. Sharing communication on a national level will help other states avoid mistakes and oversights that you have encountered. The AMBER Alert continues to be in existence due to the contemporary research and data that supports the mission and goal of the program.