Child abduction alert system
A child abduction alert system (also Child Alert, AMBER Alert or Child Rescue Alert) is a tool used to alert the public in cases of worrying or life-threatening disappearances of children.
In Europe, the alert is only disseminated following the decision of a mandated law enforcement agency or organisation with official status regarding abducted children who is able to provide services in cases of child abduction. These systems aim at quickly disseminating relevant information about a very worrying child disappearance to the general public at large, through a variety of channels, thus increasing the chances of finding the child. At present, there are alert systems in Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Portugal and Romania.
An organisation working on promoting Child Rescue Alerts in Europe is the AMBER Alert Europe Initiative. This initiative has the purpose to establish an EU-wide cross border alert system for abducted children.
- Creating a child rescue alert system for EU countries that do not yet have one, and further strengthening the different child alert initiatives that already exist in EU member states;
- Linking all child alert systems present in Europe, using international alerting standards and the child alert best practices set by the European Commission;
- Starting by mapping all missing children in Europe;
- Using the EU citizenry's situational awareness and willingness to help (citizen sourcing) in order to help rescue the approximately 1 million children that go missing in the EU every year;
- Allowing for the quick issuing of cross border alerts when a child goes missing near an EU border;
- Allowing for easy cross language border alerting, through automatic translation of the missing child poster.
The technology currently being used by AMBER Alert Europe builds on the technology already used in the Netherlands since 2008 for the Dutch AMBER Alert plan. The first cross-border child alert organised by AMBER Alert Europe was issued in the early morning of the 8th of May 2013 for two Dutch brothers. The boys' photo was displayed on large screens in the Belgian province of Limburg and in North Rhine-Westphalia (Germany) and has received extensive media attention in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. The bodies of the children have been found at 19 May 2013 near Cothen (the Netherlands).
The EU objective (DG Justice) on Child Alerts states that an early warning system for child abductions with cross-border interoperability should be established in all 27 EU countries.
A child alert system reaches millions of people within minutes. When an public child alert is issued by the police, the picture of the child is distributed to a much larger audience. A child alert system may use the following components: TV and radio, highway signs, Google Child Alert (also called Google AMBER Alert in some countries – already active in the US; there are developments in Europe), online banners and advertisements, large TV screens, SMS-text messages with photo, PC pop-ups, Facebook, Twitter, apps, website pop ups and banners, Pc screensaver, e-mail, posters, RSS news feed, mobile websites, screens in public transport (buses and trains), screens in railway stations, airports, shopping malls, supermarkets and cinemas.
However it is important to understand that endangered missing children for which a child alert system can be of use constitute an average 1 to 2% of the total cases of missing children in Europe. While child alert systems can be of use in those 1 to 2%, the overall problem of missing children - of which an average of 60% concern children running away from situations of conflict, abuse, violence and neglect - requires a much more comprehensive approach, including measures aimed at prevention and empowerment.
Child alert tools have proven their value in a number of EU Member States. They however need to be integrated in a wider set of complementary tools including hotlines for missing children, trained law enforcement services, mediation services, social services and child protection services. Child alert systems can furthermore only function efficiently and legitimately where national agencies mandated to deal with missing children work on the basis of clear operational procedures including the necessary assessment of the child’s best interest.
Where images of missing children are disseminated, it should be done with the consent of the parents or legal representative, and taking into account the need to balance the risks faced by the child with his or her right to privacy. In case of cross border alerts, clear procedures should be in place that allow to manage and control both the information shared with the public, as well the testimonies on sightings regarding the missing child received from the public. While using an efficient technology to disseminate information with the general public on missing children is valuable, the use of a powerful technology can be harmful if preconditions for 1) an effective best interest determination in each individual case and 2) the efficient management of the information, are not met.
Missing Children Europe, a European federation for missing and sexually exploited children also works on supporting the development of national child alert systems as well as effective cross-border cooperation for child alert systems. It is also the main partner working on developing the Google Child Alert System in Europe.
Child alert is the operational system that in the case of a disappearance putting a child’s life in immediate dangers, can warn citizens of Belgium and appeal to evidence that can contribute to the search. Any citizen or organization has the opportunity to register to participate. Child Alert is managed by Child Focus, in collaboration with the Federal police and the Belgian justice.
The child abduction alert system that is used in France is called L’Alerte Enlèvement. The system was introduced in February 2006 and is based on the US AMBER Alert system. The warning message will be issued for three hours by different vectors: TV channels, radio stations, news agencies, variable message signs on highways, public places, sound in stations and metro stations, websites, social media, and smartphone apps. Since the start of L’Alerte Enlèvement in 2006, it was issued for eight times. To issue an alert, five conditions must be met:
- Removal proved and not simply disappear;
- Physical integrity or the victim's life is in danger;
- Pieces of information used to locate the child or suspect;
- The victim is a minor;
- The parents of the victim have agreed to trigger the alert.
The Netherlands developed the AMBER Alert system, based on the American AMBER Alert Plan. An AMBER Alert is issued when a child is abducted or missing and the Dutch police fears that the life or health of the child is in danger. The system enables the police to immediately alert press and public nationwide, using any medium available – from electronic highway signs, to TV, radio, social media such as Facebook and Twitter, pop-up and screensavers on PC’s, large advertising screens (digital signage), e-mail, SMS text messages, smartphone apps, printable posters, RSS newsfeeds and website banners and pop-ups.
The Dutch AMBER Alert was launched in 2008 by social enterprise Netpresenter, the Dutch National police  and the Dutch minister of Justice at the time, Hirsch Ballin. Currently the system has more than 2 million participants including thousands of large organizations. In addition, the last AMBER Alert that was issued, was seen by almost 12 million Dutch citizens (88% of the Dutch population). With a success rate of 64 percent, the Dutch AMBER Alert system is an example case of effective citizen sourcing. Expectations are that an AMBER Alert will be issued in The Netherlands between five and ten times a year. There are four key criteria in The Netherlands to be met before an AMBER Alert is issued:
- The missing child has to be younger than 18 years;
- The life of the child is in imminent danger, or there is fear he/ she will be seriously injured;
- There is enough information about the victim to increase the chance of the child being found by means of an AMBER Alert, such as a photo, information about the abductor or a vehicle used;
- The AMBER Alert must be used as soon as possible after the abduction or the child going missing has been reported.
The UK has developed the Child Rescue Alert, similar to the American AMBER Alert. The system works in a way, where in the local area of the suspected abduction, radio and television broadcasts are immediately interrupted (even in some cases during mid-speech) and listeners/viewers are provided details of anything to look out for. Some counties include Variable message signs which alerts drivers on major roads to be on the lookout for that missing person or a car on the road.
In England, the counties of Hampshire, Leicestershire, Surrey, Sussex, Gloucestershire, Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire, Norfolk, Derbyshire, Suffolk, Thames Valley, Wiltshire, and Somerset, and the London Metropolitan Police Service, have adopted a similar program called the Child Rescue Alert system. Sussex was the first to launch the system, on November 14, 2002. It is based on and has alert requirements similar to the American system.
There are four key criteria in the UK's system to be met before a Child Rescue Alert is issued:
- The child is apparently under 18 years old.
- There is a reasonable belief that the child has been kidnapped or abducted.
- There is reasonable belief that the child is in imminent danger of serious harm or death, and
- There is sufficient information available to enable the public to assist police in locating the child.
Members of the public will be encouraged to keep their eyes and ears open for anything that may help the police in finding the abducted child. If they see anything they should call the police on 999.
On 3 October 2012, the first child rescue alert since the system was introduced, was issued in the search for April Jones, who was abducted near her home in the market town of Machynlleth in Mid-Wales. News flashes are being used to interrupt local radio and programmes. Information is also being carried on motorway gantry displays and texted to the mobile phones of individuals who have signed up to the project.
In May 2014 a Child Rescue Alert distribution system will be launched which aims to distribute alert messages to members of the public and the media through SMS, email, mobile APP, website pop-ups, Twitter and Facebook as well as digital billboards operated by the members of the Outdoor Media Centre. The system is available so that, if the above criteria are met, a police force can rapidly alert the public and ask them to report anything useful on a dedicated police telephone number. SMS and email messages can be sent to people who have registered to receive them through the website and who live or work in the vicinity of the disappearance. The system is an initiative of CEOP, the Child Exploitation and On-Line Protection Centre, a command of the National Crime Agency, and is facilitated by the charity, Missing People, which promotes and operates the system. The technology is provided by Groupcall. The development, promotion and operation of the system is funded initially by the players of the People's Post Code Lottery via the Dreamfund, the European Union and through the help of other supporters.
The AMBER Alert system is a notification to the general public, by media outlets in Canada and in the United States, issued when police confirm that a child has been abducted. AMBER is a backronym for America's Missing: Broadcasting Emergency Response, and was named after a 9-year-old Amber Hagerman who was abducted and murdered in Arlington, Texas in 1996.
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