Amber Alert

An AMBER Alert is a child abduction alert bulletin used in several countries throughout the world.  Amber Alerts are issued upon the suspected abduction of a child.  The alert typically details the description of the abductee, a description of the abductor, and a description and/or license plate number of the abductor’s motor vehicle.  AMBER is a acronym for “America’s Missing: Broadcasting Emergency Response”.  The alert system was named after 9-year-old Amber Hagerman who was abducted and murdered in Arlington, Texas in 1996.  Several states run the same program under a different name.  In Georgia it is called Levi’s Call (named after Levi Frady), Maile AMBER Alert in Hawaii (named after Maile Gilbert), and Morgan Nick AMBER Alert in Arkansas (named after Morgan Nick).

AMBER Alerts are broadcast using the Emergency Alert System which had previously been used for weather bulletins. AMBER Alerts are sent to the public via radio stations, television stations, NOAA Weather Radio, email, traffic control signs, and wireless SMS text messages. The decision to declare an AMBER Alert is made by the police organization that is investigating the suspected abduction.

There are strict criteria, defined by the U.S. Department of Justice, which must be met before a police organization can declare an AMBER Alert.

  • Law enforcement must confirm that an abduction has taken place
  • The child must be at risk of serious injury or death
  • There must be sufficient descriptive information of child, captor, or captor’s vehicle to issue an alert
  • The child must be 18 years old or younger

The criteria that the child be at risk of serious injury is sometimes ignored.  In some states, a parental abduction triggers an AMBER Alert, even though the child may not be in immediate peril or danger.

History of the AMBER Alert System

On January 13, 1996, nine-year-old Amber Hagerman was abducted while riding her bicycle in Arlington, Texas with her brother and his friends.  A neighbor who witnessed the abduction called the police, and Amber’s brother, Ricky, rushed home to tell his mother and grandparents what had happened.   Richard Hagerman and Amber’s mother Donna Whitson immediately called the news media and the FBI.  Neighbors began intense searches for Amber.  Four days after the abduction, a man walking his dog found Amber’s body in a storm drainage ditch.  Her killer was never found.

After the incident, Amber’s parents established the People Against Sex Offenders (PASO) organization.  They collected signatures hoping to force the Texas Legislature into passing more stringent laws to protect children.  The organization received almost daily coverage from the local Dallas – Fort Worth media.  Soon thereafter, local Congressman Martin Frost, with the help of Marc Klaas, drafted the Amber Hagerman Child Protection Act.  President Bill Clinton signed it into law in October 1996 and AMBER Alerts began in Dallas, Texas shortly thereafter.

A few years later, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children worked to have AMBER Alert systems linked nationwide.  In 2002, the FCC endorsed the system.  By September 2002, 26 states had established AMBER Alert systems.  Federal monies soon followed and President George W. Bush announced improvements to the system including the development of a national standard for issuing AMBER Alerts.

Effectiveness of AMBER Alerts

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, of the children abducted by strangers and murdered, 75% are killed within the first three hours.  AMBER Alerts are intended to get word to the general public quickly, within that narrow three hour window of opportunity.  Despite a 2004 study which showed most states did not meet the Department of Justice’s standard for AMBER Alerts, the program has proven to be successful including one instance where the abductor panicked and released the child after hearing the Amber Alert on his car radio.

As mentioned above, studies have shown that the states do not always follow the U.S. guidelines for the criteria that must exist before an AMBER Alert is issued.  In these types of cases, most involve parental custody issues where one parent forcibly takes the child away from the other parent.  Critics note that this “waters down” the importance of the system and may lead to indifference from the public if AMBER Alerts continue to veer from their intended purpose.


SOURCE: Wikipedia, CNN, USA Today

Reviewed: 5/11/11

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