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Amber Alerts: Useful Tool, Overused Abuse, or The Boy Who Cried Wolf?

Updated on December 7, 2010

 Today while browsing through TruTV's online crime library, I read the case of Amber Hagerman.  She was nine years old when she was abducted in January 1996 by an apparent stranger in a parking lot a block away from her grandparent's home in Arlington, Texas.  A nearby resident heard Amber screaming and witnessed her abductor put her into a pick-up truck and drive away with her.  He called police immediately.  Four days after being abducted, Amber's body was found in a ditch in north Arlington.  Autopsy evidence suggested that she had remained alive for at least a couple days after her abduction, and her throat had been slit.

Amber's family pushed for changes in the way law enforcement respond to missing or abducted person reports, claiming that they should have nearly the same, if not exactly the same, response as an impending hurricane or tornado warning.  In the wake of Amber's abduction and murder, politicians and the Texas state legislature responded, creating the Amber Plan, which went on to eventually become the federal Amber Alert program in the United States.  Amber's legacy has saved hundreds of abducted children, but there is some controversy to the alert system's use and misuse among the law enforcement agencies that utilize the program.

Under federal law, the Amber Alert system is to be used for children under the age of 17, in cases of almost positive abduction, where a description of the abductor or their vehicle can be provided to law enforcement and the media.  It is not a tool to be used when someone's disgruntled teen runs away for a few days because they didn't like the rules of their household, or when one parent "abducts" their own children (often when the "abducting" parent has legal custody and is well within their rights to have access to their children), or when an elderly person with Alzheimer's wanders off from home or a senior care center.  According to the usage guidelines, it is also not to be used when the only "evidence" in existence is the fact that a child is simply missing.

In some cases, law enforcement agencies have refused to issue an Amber Alert for missing children based entirely on that child's ethnic background.  In one city, two children went missing within days of each other...one child was black and the other was white.  There were two witnesses to the abduction of the black child, who gave a description of an adult male the child had been last seen in the company of.  There were no witnesses or any evidence of abduction in the white child's case.  An Amber Alert was issued for the white girl but not the black girl.

In another city, a young girl was abducted in the presence of witnesses who could provide a description of the abductor and his vehicle.  When pressed to issue an Amber Alert, the law enforcement agency began criticizing the abducted youth, claiming she had a questionable association with drug culture and other dark spots in her background.  No alert was issued.  When a prominent politician's adult daughter went missing without any evidence to back up an abduction claim, the local law enforcement agency pressed all their manpower into service to assist with locating the missing girl, who turned out to have left on a "fling" with someone she had recently met.

Some people fear that the overuse of the Amber Alert system will cause people to become numb to hearing about the alerts.  Something like the boy who cried wolf.  Other people strongly, and rightly, criticize law enforcement's discrimination in deciding which missing child cases are worthy of an Amber Alert (often based on the ethnic, financial, or political backgrounds of the childrens' families).  If a police officer's daughter went missing, of course the agency would put all their efforts into recovering the child...but what if it was my child or yours?

The local Walmart where I live in Bristol, Virginia (Store 2089 on Lee Highway at Exit 7) adopted a "no in-store announcements" policy a few years ago because they felt that the PA system was annoying to the customers, according to statements made by Store Manager Greg Cunningham.  I was working at that store at the time and personally heard these statements, so this is not hearsay of any sort.  Rumors surrounding the incident supported the claim that he and the manager of the in-store McDonald's had butted heads over McDonald's right to use the PA system for their own advertisements, so he prohibited ALL use of the PA system entirely.  This prohibition includes management pages to certain areas of the store, customer assistance requests, and Amber Alerts...even though the store still bears a sign on the front door advertising their use and support of the Amber Alert system.

Prior to the PA ban, the Walmart would issue an annoucement over the PA system giving a description of the child that was missing somewhere in the store.  Against store and state policy, many employees would also provide the child's full name in the alert (which is a definite "no no" because the potential abductor can use the child's name to earn their trust).  Now the store claims that potential alerts are given the rounds via hand-held radios that certain employees carry (limited to management in most instances).  This is wholly ineffective because it does not reach the ears of ALL the store's employees, many of whom could be within a few feet of the possibly abducted child at the time of the alert's notice.

The Amber Alert system IS an effective tool for recovering abducted children while they are still alive, and it's effectiveness has been consistently proven in the number of children that have been saved through alerts via the media.  But people need to realize that there are federal guidelines governing its use and criteria that must be met for the system to be used at all.  If it were used for EVERY child that is "missing" there would quickly become a societal numbness to its use where people would simply ignore the messages and go about their day.  Some law enforcement agencies aren't even aware that there are federal guidelines for the system.

Also, misuse and abuse of the system, such as in the case of the politician's recalcitrant adult daughter who simply wanted to kick up her heels out of the presence of her parents, should bear some form of punitive damage toward the abusers.  This would prevent the system from being used in a discriminatory manner, for the most part.

Laws and procedures that have been inacted in a child's name, such as the Amber Alert system, DO have a living, breathing reason for their existence.  Often, the reason for their existence is no longer living and breathing...and their memory only lives on through the laws enacted in their name, posthumously, to prevent what happened to them from happening to someone else's child or loved one.

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