Child abduction alert system

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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.


Currently, there are AMBER Alert systems in 20 European countries: Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.[1] AMBER Alerts systems in Poland (2013),[2] Slovakia (2015),[3] Luxembourg (2016)[4] and Malta (2017).[5] 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.

AMBER Alert Europe[edit]

Logo AMBER Alert Europe

AMBER Alert Europe is an international not for profit organisation with 32 members (law enforcement, ministries & NGOs) in 21 countries. Its Police Network consists of over 50 experts representing law enforcement from 19 European countries. The goals of AMBER Alert Europe are backed by 465 Members of the European Parliament: most successful Written Declaration since 2011.[6] Therefore, AMBER Alert Europe suggests the following 5 key points to the European Commission and the European Parliament:[7]

  1. A bigger, stronger AMBER Alert network
  2. More flexibility in issuing child alerts
  3. Better cross-border information sharing
  4. Better cross-border police cooperation
  5. Improving the identification and protection of children at borders

In 2014, AMBER Alert Europe launched the Police Expert Network on Missing Children. Goal of the network is to allow missing children police experts to quickly and informally contact their colleagues in other European member states and exchange best practices.[8]

According to AMBER Alert Europe, any child whose whereabouts is not known will be considered as missing until located, and their well-being or otherwise confirmed. All cases should be assessed to determine the seriousness and immediacy of risk, which will indicate the response that is required.

AMBER Alerts[edit]

If, after a proper risk assessment, it is believed that the life or health of a missing child is in imminent danger, police can decide to issue a national AMBER Alert. This allows them to instantly alert the public and make sure everyone is on the lookout for the child.

Life or death cases[edit]

Extensive US research, backed by UK findings, show that when a child is abducted and killed, in 76% of the cases the child was killed within three hours after the abduction. The AMBER Alert system was developed for these special ‘life or death’ cases.[9]

Law enforcement agencies are responsible for issuing an AMBER Alert and use strict criteria.[10] Below you can find the current criteria as recommended by the European Commission.[11]

  1. The victim is a minor (i.e. under 18 years of age);
  2. It is a proven abduction, there are clear elements indicating that it could be a case of abduction;
  3. The health or the life of the victim is at high risk;
  4. Information is available which, once disseminated, will allow the victim to be located;
  5. Publication of this information is not expected to add to the risk facing the victim.

Cross border AMBER Alerts[edit]

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.[12] 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).[13][14][15][16]

In April 2015 a cross border Child Alert had been issued for a 10-year-old girl from Szczecin, Poland, close to the German border. In close cooperation with the German authorities and the NGO Initiative Vermisste Kinder the Polish child alert was also spread in Germany. Via social media and large screens at railway stations German citizens were asked to be on the lookout for the missing child. Additionally, the alert was also disseminated by AMBER Alert Europe, AMBER Alert Netherlands and the recently launched AMBER Alert Slovakia.[17]

A child alert system reaches millions of people within minutes. When a 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.[18]

Missing Child Alerts[edit]

The Police issue a Missing Child Alert when there is an immediate and significant risk of harm but the case does not reach the criteria for an AMBER Alert. Police can decide to publicize information and ask the help of citizens to recover the child.[19]

However it is important to understand that Missing Child Alerts, 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. Therefore, the impact of this must be assessed by law enforcement agencies (e.g. police or public prosecutor) taking into consideration article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and national legislation.[20] In the best interest of the child, information should be removed from public sources as soon as the child is being found.[21]

Missing Children Europe,[22] 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.[23]


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.[24] Since the start of L'Alerte Enlèvement in 2006, it was issued for eight times. To issue an alert, five conditions must be met:

  1. Removal proved and not simply disappear;
  2. Physical integrity or the victim's life is in danger;
  3. Pieces of information used to locate the child or suspect;
  4. The victim is a minor;
  5. The parents of the victim have agreed to trigger the alert.

The Netherlands[edit]

Logo AMBER Alert Netherlands

AMBER Alert Netherlands is the nationwide alert system for endangered missing children and child abduction cases. With 3 million participants and participating organisations, it is the most successful citizen participation initiative in the Netherlands and a great example of effective crowdsourcing.[25]

AMBER Alert Netherlands was set up free of charge in 2008 by social enterprise Netpresenter,[26] and the Dutch National police.[27][28] The green light was given on 11 November 2008 by the Minister of Justice at the time, Hirsch Ballin.[29] Today, AMBER Alert is an established name in the Netherlands. Research has shown that AMBER Alert has the highest brand awareness among all the alerting systems: no less than 95 percent of non-participants know the system by name.[30][31] Since the start, the system has been used to issue alerts for over 1000 missing child cases.[32]

Currently the system has 3 million participants including thousands of large organisations.[33] In addition, the last AMBER Alert that was issued, was seen by more than 12 million Dutch citizens (89% of the Dutch population).[34] With a success rate of 94 percent, the Dutch AMBER Alert system is an example case of effective citizen sourcing.

AMBER Alert Netherlands exclusively distributes AMBER Alerts and information about endangered missing children. The police only issues an AMBER Alert when a child's life is in imminent danger (AMBER Alert) or when the child is at immediate and significant risk of harm (endangered missing child). When an AMBER Alert is issued (about 1-2 times a year), the entire system is deployed. The whole country then turns into one big missing children's poster. 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.[29][35]

There are four key criteria in The Netherlands to be met before an AMBER Alert is issued, assessed by the Dutch National Police:[36][37]

  1. The missing child has to be younger than 18 years;
  2. The life of the child is in imminent danger, or there is fear he/ she will be seriously injured;
  3. 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;
  4. The AMBER Alert must be used as soon as possible after the abduction or the child going missing has been reported.

Parts of the Dutch AMBER Alert system are being used for endangered missing children. A missing child is considered endangered when there is an immediate and significant risk of harm but the case does not reach the criteria for an AMBER Alert. The Dutch police can decide to publicize information and ask the help of citizens to recover the child.[38]

AMBER Alert Netherlands is a founding member of AMBER Alert Europe.[39]

United Kingdom[edit]

The UK has developed the Child Rescue Alert, similar to the American AMBER Alert.[40] 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.[41] It is based on and has alert requirements similar to the American system.[42][43][44][45][46][47][48][49][50]

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.[51]

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.[52]

In May 2014 a Child Rescue Alert[53] 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[54] and Facebook[55] as well as digital billboards operated by the members of the Outdoor Media Centre.[56] 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.[57] The development, promotion and operation of the system is funded initially by the players of the People's Postcode Lottery[58] via the Dreamfund, the European Union and through the help of other supporters.

North America[edit]

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 girl named Amber Hagerman who was abducted and murdered in Arlington, Texas in 1996.

See also[edit]


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External links[edit]