AMBER Alert System Fumbles With Family Abductions

Posted on June 4, 2012 by


Image: Department of Justice

The AMBER alert system, created in 1996, has evolved into a multi-agency rapid deployment response system designed to quickly locate abducted children. It requires that organizations as disparate as law enforcement, mobile providers, and news outlets coordinate their response toward a single common goal: pushing information to the public to help find missing children.

The system is a worthwhile effort, and its development from the “good idea” of 1996 to the sophisticated operation that it is today is a testament to the desire and the ability to mobilize technology for the greater good. But if there is glaring flaw in the AMBER system, it is the heavy emphasis placed on stranger abductions.

In order for a missing child to qualify for the AMBER alert, the case must meet the following requirements:

  • Law enforcement believes an abduction has occurred.
  • Law enforcement believes the child is in imminent danger of serious bodily injury or death.
  • Sufficient descriptive information about the victim, the suspect, and the abduction exists for law enforcement to issue an AMBER Alert.
  • The child is 17 years old or younger.
  • The child’s name and other critical information, including the “child abduction” flag, have been entered into the National Crime Information Center system.

The problem is in making the determination that there is imminent danger of serious bodily injury or death. Program materials repeatedly state that, “Clearly, stranger abductions are the most dangerous to children and thus are primary to the mission of an AMBER Alert.”

It is true that stranger abductions do pose the greatest risk. I’m not arguing that fact.

Instead, I’m saying that this strong emphasis on stranger crime detracts from the danger posed by violent parents who abduct their own children. And then there is the problem of protective parents who, having lost custody to abusers, abduct their children to spare them from certain future abuse. These protective parents may find that the system works against them, rather than with them.

I understand that stranger crime ignites our greatest fears, and no stranger crime is as vivid to the imagination as the abduction of a child.  The thought of a child kidnapped  by a stranger for ransom, sexual abuse, or murder is untenable to everyone.

But it should also be understood that such crimes are incredibly rare, whereas children assaulted, sexually abused, and murdered by their own parents, usually the father, are more common. The failure of the criminal justice children to protect these children has tragic consequences.

The AMBER alert’s failure to address domestic violence is just another flaw in a vast machinery that reacts well to stranger crimes, but falters  when faced with the complications and difficulties of domestic violence. The recent US Department of Justice Best Practices Amber Alert report mentions domestic violence. Exactly once. In a single sentence.

In any discussion of best practices for the AMBER Alert, careful consideration of child abductions in the context of domestic violence demand a more serious and thoughtful treatment than one sentence.

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