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AMBER ALERT: HOW IT CHANGED CHILD SAFETY

THE HISTORY BEHIND THE ALERT

Nearly 72% of abducted and murdered children are killed within three hours of their kidnapping[1]. Child safety is the need of the hour and AMBER alert is a significant system for the same. The word “AMBER” is an acronym that stands for America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response[2]. Simply put, AMBER alert is a child abduction notification system whose primary aim is to broadcast news of any abducted or missing child all over the country as soon as possible, giving police an extra edge in gaining information about the same.

The alert is named as such to honour the memory of Amber Hagerman, the reason behind this system. Amber was a nine-year old residing in Arlington, Texas who was kidnapped on the 13th of January 1996[3]. In spite of the efforts of more than fifty police officials and agents looking for her, she could not be found when she was alive[4]. Five days after the kidnapping, her corpse was discovered in a stream by a passer-by, four miles away from the parking lot from where she was abducted[5].Shortly after Amber’s death was confirmed, another resident of Arlington, Dianne Simone, came up with the idea of sending out alerts when children were abducted and wrote a letter regarding the same to a local radio channel[6]. This idea stuck and the Dallas-Fort Worth broadcasters joined up with local cops to create an alert system in 1997[7].

THE WORKING OF THE AMBER ALERT SYSTEM

Before the alerts are sent out to the public, there are some standard guidelines set by the Department of Justice, USA that need to be followed[8]. The guidelines are as follows:

  • The first and foremost condition is that the law officials have enough evidence to believe that a kidnapping has actually happened, i.e., they need confirmation that the child has been abducted[9].
  • The child who is abducted is believed to be in potential danger of significant physical injury or death[10].
  • The police department needs to have enough detailed information about the victim and the kidnapping to broadcast an AMBER alert which will aid in the kidnapped child’s rescue[11].
  • The victim should be 17 years old or younger[12].
  • The National Crime Information Center (NCIC) system needs to be updated with the child’s name as well as other key data components, including the Child Abduction flag[13].

Additionally, individual states in the US have their own standards along with the centrally allotted ones for issuing alerts[14].

Once all the standards are met, the law enforcement organization proceeds to send the alerts, which include the picture of the child abducted, as well as any particulars that may help identify the abductor[15]. Radio and television outlets, as well as cable television stations, get the alerts and then they use the Emergency Alert System to send information to locals across the United States[16]. Mobiles enabled with the WEA (Wireless Emergency Alert) system also get the alerts[17].

HOW RELIABLE IS THE ALERT SYSTEM?

The reason behind the criteria that dictate whether or not an alert will be issued has more to do with the nature of the kidnapping. Family abductions are the most prevalent form of abduction in the United States, and they frequently result from custody battles between estranged parents[18]. The AMBER alert system, on the other hand, was designed for more serious kidnappings that could result in bodily harm or death of the child[19]. But whatever the initial intentions were, AMBER Alerts have been issued on a much broader basis so far, including familial abductions and incidents that turned out to be relatively harmless missing cases or misunderstandings[20]. This desensitizes the common public, and they may end up ignoring the alerts, thinking it to be another misunderstanding.

The failure of the AMBER Alert programme to operate in “stereotypical” child abduction cases is one of the most significant worries which makes people wonder if the system is actually overrated[21]. Stereotypical kidnappings are those carried out by strangers or minor acquaintances, and they’re often distinguished from the other familial abductions by their demand of ransom or their intent to kill the child[22].  Even though the Department of Justice of the United States declares that the Amber Alert has saved up to 1,029 children (as of December 2020)[23], there have been reports that state that the alerts have only served to ‘aid’ in the recovery of a large number of children instead of actually doing much to save the kids[24]. The truth behind these reports is still unverified.

WHY DOES THIS SYSTEM NEED TO STAY?

This is not the first time that there has been talk about how this system is not really necessary. When the AMBER alert system initially started, the first as well as the second case was a failure and there were already discussions of scraping this programme[25]. However, the third alert, issued in 1998, managed to save the 8-week-old Rae Leigh Bradbury, who was kidnapped by her babysitter, following which it was decided to retain the system[26].

There are numerous other such incidents where children have been saved, that would not have been possible had there been no such system. Jacqueline Marris and Tamara Brooks were two teenagers that were abducted by a wanted rapist in California and were eventually rescued owing to a report made by an Animal Control Officer who had received the Amber alert[27]. In yet another incident, Nichole Timmons, a ten-year old who was abducted by her babysitter, was saved because a driver in Nevada who had seen the alert recognised the car from the broadcast and informed the authorities[28].

IMPROVING AMBER ALERT

Even though the performance of the alert system hasn’t been as promising as it was expected to be, data shows that it did have positive outcomes, i.e., the alert played a key role in the rescue of the child in about 31.5 percent of the cases that have been studied[29]. However, not all of these cases fall under ‘stereotypical kidnapping’. Hence, it is very important to re-examine the effectiveness of the alert system. It is also necessary for the law enforcement agency to verify a case and its facts before issuing an alert. This will help prevent unnecessary alerts that are later revealed to be misunderstandings or familial kidnapping as such examples deter the locals from considering the alert as an important issue.

Another aspect that needs to be studied is that of the abductor or perpetrator. According to the research, one of the merits of the alerts is their ability to persuade some kidnappers to free or return the victim[30]. Is it possible, however, for the opposite to occur? This is something that should be investigated. Once the kidnapper is caught, it should be analysed as to how the alert system affected their choices and what was the outcome of that.

CONCLUSION

The question of whether the alert system should be scrapped is still being debated. Some argue that it is a waste of taxpayer’s money to follow up on false leads for minor incidents. However, it isn’t exactly advisable to get rid of it completely considering that its very creation was to ensure child safety and it has in fact managed to save abducted children. It even inspired the implementation of alert systems in European countries. Hopefully prior verification will help people take this system more seriously.

Author(s) Name: Manaswini Rout (National Law University, Odisha)

References:

[1] Gene A Petty, ‘Spotlight On: AMBER Plan’ (2002) 22 Child Legal Rts J 45 <https://heinonline.org/HOL/Page?collection=journals&handle=hein.journals/clrj22&id=123&men_tab=srchresults#>

[2] “Frequently Asked Questions” (AMBER Alert) <https://amberalert.ojp.gov/about/faqs>

[3] Barber H, “The Amber Behind Amber Alert Still Waiting for Justice 20 Years Later” (NBCNews.com, January 19, 2016) <https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/cold-case-spotlight/amber-behind-amber-alert-still-waiting-justice-20-years-later-n497696>

[4] DeLong W, “The Story Of Amber Hagerman And The Unsolved Disappearance Behind The Amber Alert” (All That’s Interesting, June 16, 2021) <https://allthatsinteresting.com/amber-hagerman>

[5] ibid.

[6] “AMBER Alert History” (History) <https://amberalert.nv.gov/About/History/>

[7] ibid.

[8] “Frequently Asked Questions” (AMBER Alert) <https://amberalert.ojp.gov/about/faqs>

[9] “Guidelines for Issuing AMBER Alerts” (AMBER Alert) <https://amberalert.ojp.gov/about/guidelines-for-issuing-alerts>

[10] ibid.

[11] ibid.

[12] ibid.

[13] ibid.

[14] “Frequently Asked Questions” (AMBER Alert) <https://amberalert.ojp.gov/about/faqs>

[15] “AMBER Alerts” (Federal Communications Commission, February 18, 2020) <https://www.fcc.gov/consumers/guides/amber-plan-americas-missing-broadcast-emergency-response>.

[16] ibid.

[17] ibid.

[18]Timothy Griffin and Monica K Miller and Jeffrey Hoppe and Amy Rebideaux and Rachel Hammack, ‘A Preliminary Examination of AMBER Alert’s Effects’ (2007) 18 Crim Just Pol’y Rev 378 <https://heinonline.org/HOL/Page?handle=hein.journals/cjpr18&id=370&collection=journals&index=>

[19]ibid.

[20] ibid.

[21]Corey Jessup and Monica K Miller, ‘Fear, Hype, and Stereotypes: Dangers of Overselling the Amber Alert Program’ (2015) 8 Alb Gov’t L Rev 467   <https://heinonline.org/HOL/Page?collection=journals&handle=hein.journals/aglr8&id=499&men_tab=srchresults>

[22] ibid.

[23] “Frequently Asked Questions” (AMBER Alert) <https://amberalert.ojp.gov/about/faqs>

[24] Timothy Griffin and Monica K Miller and Jeffrey Hoppe and Amy Rebideaux and Rachel Hammack, ‘A Preliminary Examination of AMBER Alert’s Effects’ (2007) 18 Crim Just Pol’y Rev 378 <https://heinonline.org/HOL/Page?handle=hein.journals/cjpr18&id=370&collection=journals&index=>

[25] “The Beginning of AMBER Alert” (2010) 4 THE AMBER ADVOCATE <https://amberalert.ojp.gov/sites/g/files/xyckuh201/files/media/document/advocate_1004_0.pdf>

[26] ibid.

[27] Angela Currie, ‘The Amber Alert and Its Effects on Juvenile Abduction’ (2005) 25 J Juv L 16 <https://heinonline.org/HOL/Page?collection=journals&handle=hein.journals/jjuvl25&id=25&men_tab=srchresults#>.

[28] ibid.

[29] Timothy Griffin and Monica K Miller and Jeffrey Hoppe and Amy Rebideaux and Rachel Hammack, ‘A Preliminary Examination of AMBER Alert’s Effects’ (2007) 18 Crim Just Pol’y Rev 378 <https://heinonline.org/HOL/Page?handle=hein.journals/cjpr18&id=370&collection=journals&index=>

[30] ibid.

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