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The (In)effectiveness of Amber Alerts

- August 3, 2008


(The most famous child abduction case
in American history.)

Somewhere in America, a child goes missing. Soon thereafter, an “Amber Alert” is broadcast. Tips begin pouring in to the authorities. The child is rescued as a result of the alert.

A happy outcome, but according to a new study, not a very frequent one.

The “Amber” in “Amber Alert” simultaneously memorializes a child who was abducted and murdered in 1996 and serves as an acronym for “America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response.” After that murder, an alert system was introduced in some Texas communities, the idea gained popularity, and in 2003 Congress passed and the president signed into law legislation mandating every state to develop an alert program.

What has the “Amber Alert” program actually accomplished?

bq. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, more than 400 children have been saved by Amber Alerts. Of the 17 children Massachusetts has issued alerts on since it created its system in 2003, all have been safely returned.

bq. These are encouraging statistics – but also deeply misleading, according to some of the only outside scholars to examine the system in depth. In the first independent study of whether Amber Alerts work, a team led by University of Nevada criminologist Timothy Griffin looked at hundreds of abduction cases between 2003 and 2006 and found that Amber Alerts – for all their urgency and drama – actually accomplish little. In most cases where they were issued, Griffin found, Amber Alerts played no role in the eventual return of abducted children. Their successes were generally in child custody fights that didn’t pose a risk to the child. And in those rare instances where kidnappers did intend to rape or kill the child, Amber Alerts usually failed to save lives.

This is from a piece by Drake Bennett in the Boston Globe’s “Ideas” section, July 20, 2006. For the full story, click here.