No new plans in works for issuing Amber Alerts

Father of woman held captive says requirements strict

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They are evident on bulletin boards outside grocery stores, churches and restaurants across the country: crinkled pieces of paper asking for help in finding a missing child.

The fliers are so common that they are often ignored, despite the wide eyes of a 6-year-old on the sheet of paper listing her age, weight, height and where she was last seen.

This paper system is slated to stay in place for the time being, as police have no intention of expanding the scope of nationwide Amber Alerts.

Felix DeJesus, the father of one of the three women who were released from years of captivity in Cleveland on Monday, complained in 2006 that authorities should have done more the day his 14-year-old daughter failed to return home from school in 2004.

One of the things he had asked for was an Amber Alert, issued when a child disappears and is feared to have been abducted. He said the authorities would not issue the alert, saying there was no evidence of foul play.

At the time, Cleveland police said such widespread alerts should only be used in cases in which there is a fear that a child is in imminent danger, creating an immediate opportunity for the public to help locate the child.

That thinking persists today: Pennsylvania State Trooper Adam Reed said Tuesday that he was unaware of any plans to change the system. Simply reporting that a child is missing is not enough to send out widespread alerts, he said, explaining that the child may simply be a runaway.

But when an abduction is confirmed, a different protocol takes place. Alerts are sent to mobile phones, radio and TV broadcasts are interrupted, and electronic bulletin boards on major highways publicize the disappearance in real time.

Amber Alerts began in 1996, when broadcasters teamed up with police to create an early warning system to help find abducted children. Amber is an acronym for America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response and was developed in honor of 9-year-old Amber Hagerman of Arlington, Texas, who was kidnapped while riding her bicycle and then killed.

States nationwide, including Pennsylvania, soon joined.

Just Saturday, an Amber Alert was issued in Pennsylvania for a 6-year-old Fayette County boy. Latrobe police found him safe Sunday. A 45-year-old Confluence man was charged with rape of a child and kidnapping.

National guidelines established by the U.S. Department of Justice specify that police must confirm an abduction and the child is at risk of injury or death. The missing person must be under the age of 18.

According to Justice Department statistics, there were six alerts in Pennsylvania in 2011, the latest year available. There were 11 in Ohio and two in West Virginia that year.

To Mr. DeJesus, the requirements are too strict.

"The Amber Alert should work for any missing child," he told the Associated Press in 2006.

In Ohio, an Amber Alert Steering Committee meets quarterly to review the system and discuss possible changes, said Lt. Anne Ralston of the Ohio State Highway Patrol.

Trooper Reed said there does not necessarily need to be a witness of the abduction for an Amber Alert to be sent.

State police work with organizations such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and media outlets to get the information out.

"You have to walk a thin line when sending broad alerts like this," Trooper Reed said, to protect against "crying wolf" situations.

nation

Jessica Tully: jtully@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1601.


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