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An Alert System To Break Up Abductions

September 01, 2001  | 

WASHINGTON, D.C.(Washington Post; Sept. 10)

Just three hours after 5-year-old Maria Cuellar was lured into a stolen ambulance and kidnapped in April, she was returned unharmed. For that, her Houston family can thank another Texas girl who was not so fortunate: Nine-year-old Amber Hagerman was abducted while bicycling near her grandparents' Arlington home in 1996 and did not come back alive.

Her body was found four days later ina creek bed. Her throat had been cut.

Out of Amber's death came a new way to alert the public quickly when a child has been snatched -- often within the crucial first hour or so. The system, named for Amber, utilizes the same emergency broadcast network that radio and TV stations use to warn of dangerous weather and other potentially catastrophic conditions.

Four states and nearly two dozen cities and communities have adopted the AMBER Plan, as it's called. Now it's coming to the nation's capital.

At a news conference today launching the Washington area effort, organizers -- among them the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and area law enforcement officials -- plan to announce that two TV stations and about a dozen radio stations have signed on to participate. Participants include WTTG-TV (Channel 5) and WJLA-TV (Channel 7) and radio stations WTOP and WMAL.

"We're literally putting millions of eyes on the road looking for that abducted child or abductor," said Dee Anderson, a sheriff in the Dallas area who helped start the AMBER system in 1997. "It's a tremendously powerful tool."

While the program has run into controversy in some places, it also has been credited with the return of 16 children. The Alexandria-based national center for missing children plans to use the Washington program as its nationwide model.

About 4,500 children are kidnapped by people other than family members each year in the United States, a number dwarfed by the 354,000 abducted by relatives and the 450,000 who run away, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

In the grim business of finding those taken by strangers, getting the word out fast can make the difference. Police say their chances of finding a child alive are best within the first few hours of an abduction.

Broadcasters came up with the idea of using the Emergency Alert System, which airs bulletins warning communities about severe weather and other potential emergencies.

Along the way, it has attracted some criticism. In Texas, for example, organizers tightened the criteria to get on the air after radio listeners complained of too many alerts related to child custody disputes.

Some broadcasters have been slow to sign on, saying they are reluctant to turn over airtime to police agencies. Others say that the Emergency Alert System should be reserved for community-wide dangers and that broadcasting abduction alerts opens the door to demands by others for a share of airtime.

Indeed, a Dallas group now wants to use the Emergency Alert System to broadcast descriptions of missing Alzheimer's patients.

Law enforcement officials say they have strict guidelines to determine whether an abduction is eligible for the alert system.

In most cases, the missing child must be younger than 15, and the police must believe that the youngster is at risk and that abductor and child are probably still in the area. A description of the abductor or abduction also must be available.

Using those guidelines, organizers expect that the Washington alert system will be used four or five times a year.

"The best-case scenario," said Prince William County police Lt. John Collier, who helped set up the system, "is that we never have to use it."

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