The AMBER Alert program began locally in 1996 when fourth-grader Amber Hagerman was abducted and murdered near her home in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. After the abduction, law enforcement agencies in North Texas and the Dallas-Fort Worth Association of Radio Managers developed a plan to send out an emergency alert about a missing child to the public through the Emergency Alert System (EAS), which interrupts broadcasting. Soon after, a federal AMBER alert program was established.

Under the federal program, once law enforcement has determined that a child has been “abducted” and the abduction meets AMBER Alert criteria, law enforcement notifies broadcasters and state transportation officials. AMBER Alerts interrupt regular programming and are broadcast on radio and television and DOT highway signs. AMBER Alerts can also be re-disseminated through lottery, digital billboards, Internet Ad exchanges, Internet Service Providers, Internet search engines, as well as wireless devices such as mobile phones.

In order to qualify for an AMBER Alert, a missing child’s case must meet very specific criteria.

  • There is reasonable belief by law enforcement that an abduction has occurred.
  • The law enforcement agency believes that the child is in imminent danger of serious bodily injury or death.
  • There is enough descriptive information about the victim and the abduction for law enforcement to issue an AMBER Alert to assist in the recovery of the child.
  • The abduction is of a child aged 17 years or younger.
  • The child’s name and other critical data elements, including the Child Abduction flag, have been entered into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) system.
The AMBER Alert has been extremely effective. As of December 23, 2015, there have been 800 children rescued and returned specifically because of AMBER Alert. When an AMBER Alert is issued, word that a child has been kidnapped in the area is disseminated through a variety of sources, from freeway signs to text-messaging devices. The bulletin includes a brief description of the victim, the alleged abductor and the vehicle they are believed to be traveling in, along with a plea to call authorities immediately if they are spotted.

The emphasis on urgency is based on a chilling fact: approximately three-quarters of children who are kidnapped and murdered are killed within three hours of the abduction. AMBER Alerts were conceived of as a way to find the apparent kidnapper and rescue the child during that tiny window of opportunity.
While seemingly effective in locating children who meet this criteria, the AMBER Alert system has an inherent contradiction structured into it. A large population of children who go missing, do not fit the criteria for an AMBER Alert to be issued. And even if they do meet the criteria, it takes time to verify those criteria. At the moment of truth, when a decision has to be made, often law enforcement officials are busy verifying whether the case satisfies those conditions.

What happens to a child who goes missing when it is not clear that an abduction has occurred? And while the officials wait to verify the information to see if it meets the AMBER Alert criteria, how does information about the missing child get disseminated into the community?

The unfortunate answer to these questions is that nothing happens. The emphasis behind the AMBER alert is based around urgency, however, it takes time to determine the facts involving missing children to see if they meet the criteria for an alert. And while law enforcement works to verify the information, critical time passes. We all know that when a child goes missing, time is the last thing we have because statistics show us that approximately three-quarters of children who are kidnapped and murdered are killed within three hours of the abduction.

There has to be another system of mobilizing the community into searching for these missing children while the information is being verified and for those who do not meet the criteria.