Amber Alert has evolved into vital tool in finding abducted children

The search process for missing children has come a long way since a kid’s photo was plastered on milk cartons in the 1980s.

Today, technology is utilized as never before in attempt to find missing children, especially within the first three hours of a disappearance, a time when kidnapped children are most likely to be murdered, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

One of law enforcement’s biggest tools in helping find abducted children is the America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response, or Amber Alert.  The system is named after Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old abducted and murdered in Arlington, Texas in 1996.

An Amber Alert is distributed across broadcast television, radio, cable TV and cellular phone systems by police concerned over a child believed to have been abducted. This was the case Thursday morning following the disappearance of Caitlyn Virts, who police believe was taken by her father, Timothy.

“The tool is extremely helpful, specifically because of the public’s participation once an Amber Alert is issued,” said Bob Hoever, director of special programs with the National Center of Missing and Exploited Children. “Finding a missing child is like looking for a needle in a haystack and the alert helps make that haystack smaller and greatly improves the chances of bringing home a child safely.”

Hoever said since the Amber Alert’s inception, 679 children have been safely recovered as a direct result of the program. This includes nine children rescued in the last year as a result of the cell phone alerts.

“What we have today is real time assistance,” Hoever said. “While technology of the past was great at the time it was missing something. Once a child has been rescued, cancelations go out to inform people their assistance is no longer needed. We are as close to real time as possible.”

Heather L. Pfeifer, associate professor for the School of Criminal Justice at University of Baltimore, says that Amber Alerts are helpful for sharing information between law enforcement and the affected community in a timely manner.

“It’s more eyes that are looking for the child. Hopefully it increases the likelihood that someone has seen something unusual so law enforcement can track the child,” she said. 

Any piece of information, big or small, that someone thinks could be important to an Amber Alert is beneficial to building law enforcement’s lead, according to Pfeifer. 

Since its introduction in 1996, the Amber Alert system has adjusted to changes in technology. The Wireless Emergency Alert system automatically sends text alerts to people based on their proximity to the alert. The news media follow the alerts with updates on social networks. 

“Being aware of new platforms is relevant. This program has been in existence for quite some time, so it really needs to stay abreast of technology development and the way people disseminate information and communicate with each other,” Pfeifer said. 

The urgent bulletins from the Wireless Emergency Alert system are geo-targeted. In other words, secured government agencies can send alerts out to all alert-enabled mobile phones in a specific area.

There are four instances smartphone users would receive Emergency Message Alerts: extreme weather, threatening emergencies, AMBER Alerts or presidential alerts during a national emergency, according to FEMA.

Smartphone users who choose to opt-out of the alerts need only adjust the settings to their mobile device. Users however will not be able to opt out of presidential messages.

However, those who work to find missing children hope very few people plan to opt out of the program.

This is because in part of the emotional state of the abductor as strained emotions and sticky family drama typically precede suspected kidnappings, a criminologist who studies these cases said.

Jeffrey Ian Ross, a professor at the University of Baltimore, said Virts likely was feeling threatened when he allegedly took his 11-year-old daughter Thursday morning.

Suspects like him typically “feel like they have exhausted all other options,” Ross said.

They might feel like they were on the wrong end of a custody dispute, or the courts were unfair, he said. 

“One has to try to determine his state of mind and what he hopes to achieve by a potential abduction,” Ross said.  

And that won’t be easy, at least until more facts about the case come out, Ross said.

The police are going to put together as in depth of a profile of Virts as possible, tracking all of his phone calls and Internet activities as well as his court record and family relationships.

At this point, no one knows his or his daughter’s whereabouts, and Virts may have decided to ditch the license plate of the vehicle he’s driving.

“So that will just further throw law enforcement off,” Ross said.  

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