November 20, 2008

The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) is issuing the following statement to correct and respond to Dorie Turner’s November 20 article titled “States Disagree Greatly on AMBER Alert Criteria.”  The article contained errors and inaccuracies and created the impression that it is a flawed program which is not true.  The article does a disservice to law enforcement, the public, child victims and their parents. 

The Associated Press reported “wide variations in what triggers an Amber Alert from one state to the next,” and stated that this is occurring “despite a federal law meant to create a uniform system.”

There are variations from state to state and community to community.  However, what the AP story ignores is that the AMBER Alert is not a federal program, it is a grassroots effort created to mobilize the eyes and ears of the public to assist in the search for an abducted child.  It is a tool used by law enforcement to seek the public’s help in the most serious abducted child cases in which the child is at greatest risk and in which there is key descriptive information to provide to the public.  It is triggered in every case by a state or local police officer. 

The AMBER Alert was created in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas in 1996, following the tragic abduction and murder of 9-year-old Amber Hagerman of Arlington, Texas.  It was the idea of the Dallas-Fort Worth Radio Broadcasters Association working with the Sheriff of Tarrant County, Texas.  The concept was simple:  utilize the Emergency Alert System normally used for weather emergencies in child abduction cases in which the child is at great risk and where there is key descriptive information to be provided to the public.

In 2003 Congress passed the PROTECT Act, which contained a provision that established a National AMBER Coordinator, an Assistant Attorney General, and it mandated the creation of minimum standards for AMBER Alerts.  However, it also provided that the standards “shall be adoptable on a voluntary basis only.”  The reason for not making the implementation of these standards mandatory was simple and compelling.  The AMBER Alert is a voluntary, grassroots, community program, not a program run or managed by the federal government.

The AP notes that the federal law “doesn’t penalize states that don’t follow” the standards.  That is true.  The intent of the law was not to federalize the AMBER Alert program.  It is a community program.  Instead, the Justice Department has conducted training programs across the country, provided grant funding to encourage improvements in state and local programs, and urged the implementation of the proposed standards. 

Yet, ultimately the AMBER decisions are made by state and local law enforcement.  There is no massive bureaucracy to manage and implement the AMBER Alert program.  In most states and communities, someone will be designated to coordinate it, but the strength of the program is that it is enormously effective and costs virtually nothing. 

When a child is reported missing, law enforcement alone evaluates the level of danger based on the known facts and makes a determination as to whether or not to activate an AMBER Alert, but the AMBER Alert is not all that is being done to recover missing children.  It is not being used in lieu of other law enforcement methods, it complements them.   

In some states AMBER Alerts are activated more often than we would anticipate from the proposed standards and in some states, less.  In some instances law enforcement takes longer than we would like to make the decision.  But most often that delay is a result of a desire to get it right, to make sure that this is the right kind of case for this important system.

The AMBER Alert is a model for how Americans can come together to address pressing community problems.  It was not the creation of a high-priced consultant, a corporate boardroom, or a legislative body.  It is a truly grassroots initiative, born out of tragedy in one community that has grown into a national institution.  The danger of the AP article is that it could compromise public confidence in a program that works and has reunited families. 

Today, there are 120 AMBER programs in the United States, including 53 statewide programs (including the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands) plus 29 regional programs and 38 local programs.  Contrary to the AP story, every state has an AMBER Coordinator. 

Most importantly, 426 children have been rescued as a direct result of AMBER Alerts.  In each case, local law enforcement made the determination that the child was in significant danger and that it was important to ask for the public’s help.  In each case, the public responded by providing vital information leading to the child’s recovery.  In each case, the decision as to whether or not to issue an AMBER Alert was made by state or local law enforcement based on the circumstances of that particular case. 

Further, the AMBER Alert should not just be measured by its recoveries.  We have received reports regarding offenders releasing children due to the heightened risk associated with the public attention generated by the AMBER Alert.  While we cannot prove it empirically, we firmly believe that not only are AMBER Alerts helping to recover children, but they are also becoming a deterrent to the abduction of others.

The AMBER Alert is a powerful, effective tool to mobilize the public’s help in the search for child abduction victims.  It works and it costs virtually nothing.