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A Better Way to Help Missing Children

By the late Bill Bickel, Editor of Crime, Justice and America magazine for many years. Originally published in 2004 and reposted with permission from Crime, Justice and America magazine

Around 6:30 pm on the evening of February 1, Florida 11-year-old Carlie Brucia disappeared. It wasn’t until the evening of the following day that an Amber Alert was issued. Carlie’s parents don’t criticize the delay; but they are frustrated that Law Enforcement didn’t do a thing until they’d officially confirmed there’d been a kidnapping. The Amber Alert, named for Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old Texas girl who was kidnapped and murdered in 1996, is in place in 47 states, and the other three (Alaska, Hawaii and North Carolina) are setting up their own versions. A national system is in the works. Under the Alert system, the state’s emergency notification system gives broadcasters information about the abducted child and the information is posted on electronic highway signs and sometimes even on electronic lottery machines. Over 120 rescues gave been credited to this system since 1996. But the requirements are strict, because over-use of the system would lead to the public ignoring the notices, making it all worthless. The rules vary by state, but they’re basically:

  • The missing person must be under 18
  • There has to be evidence of a kidnapping (runaways are not covered)
  • There must be evidence that the child is in danger
  • There must be an adequate description of the child and/or the abductor to pass along

By the time police were certain Carlie Brucia had been abducted – a surveillance camera showing her being grabbed by a man later identified as Joseph P. Smith – it was probably too late. The problem was the all-or-nothing nature of the Amber Alert.

A uniform four-level system, possibly incorporated into to the national Amber Alert program, with each level clearly spelled out for local Law Enforcement, could serve the public better:

Level 1: A Child Is Missing
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That’s all. As soon as a parent or guardian phones the police, a report is taken, the police are given a photo, and the case is in the system. Maybe it’s an abduction, but more likely it’s a teenager running away from home or staying overnight with a boy or girlfriend, or an 11-year-old who’s got a late soccer game and forgot to tell anybody, or a 6-year-old who somehow managed to fall asleep under her bed. Maybe 99% of all calls will turn out to be false alarms; but the numbers still won’t be enough to overtax the police department. The police will come to your home if you think you hear a prowler outside at night; and if there’s nobody there, all the better. The fire department will come to your home if your toaster catches fire; and if everything’s under control by the time they get there, it’s no big deal. Once the police have the child’s description and photo, patrol cars can be on the lookout in the neighborhood – and if the situation becomes more serious, they already have the information in hand.

Level 2: Parental Abduction

By far, the majority of child abductions are by non-custodial parents. Unless there’s evidence of a danger to the child, police have a tendency to treat them as domestic disputes. Well, in a sense, they are – but they’re also crimes. A full-scale search for every non-custodial abduction is impractical; but again, information should be taken immediately and patrol cars should be put on alert both in the neighborhood the child was taken from and anywhere the non-custodial parent has ties. This means having an efficient means of communicating between police departments. In an age where just about every police station has computers and FAX machines, this shouldn’t be a difficult thing to set up.

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Level 3: Endangered Children

Any missing child under the age of 5 not positively known to be with a parent will be considered endangered immediately, and local authorities will establish guidelines for other children under the age of 12 (i.e.: 5- and 6-year olds will be considered endangered 2 hours after being reported missing, 7-year-olds after 3 hours). The timetable would depend on the community: On the whole, a child who’s wandered off will be safer in Mayberry than in downtown Detroit, and less safe in a town filled with lakes, railroad tracks, and other potential hazards.

Any missing child – runaway, parental abduction, or just unaccounted-for – with a medical condition that puts him or her at severe risk: a child with diabetes, a child dependent on medication, a child with severe asthma.

Any missing child in the company of somebody who can be regarded as dangerous, such as somebody who’s known to be armed or dealing drugs.

When a child is listed as endangered, local police should lead an active search, and local media should be informed using the same means by which they’d be informed of an Amber Alert. If the child has been abducted by a non-custodial parent, these same steps should be taken anywhere the non-custodial parent has ties.

Level 4: Amber Alert
Disclosure: Generative AI Created Article

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