Why Isn’t There an AMBER Alert for Every Child Who Goes Missing?

JEFFERSON CO., Pa. (EYT) – While a missing child is always considered a serious situation, the response from law enforcement agencies can go in different directions depending on the circumstances of the case.

The recent search for a missing Parker teen, which ended in her recovery, highlighted an issue that can be confusing for some people.

AMBER Alert originated in 1996. It is a message distributed by a child abduction alert system to ask the public for help in finding abducted children. It was originally named for a 9-year-old named Amber Hagerman who was tragically kidnapped and murdered in Texas in 1996.

But, when is an AMBER Alert issued for a missing juvenile, and what are the criteria?

ExploreJeffersonPA.com reached out to local law enforcement to break down the issues at play.

“It must be a situation, with a person under 18, where we believe they are in imminent danger of harm or death,” Trooper Chewning, Public Information Officer for the Pennsylvania State Police Troop C, explained.

“It has to be believed to be a situation involving that kind of imminent danger.”

AMBER Alerts are also limited to only “abducted” children, and exclude any children believed to possibly be runaways or “throwaways” from home.

Trooper Chewning provided the information regarding the criteria for an AMBER Alert criteria which have to be met for the alert to be issued:

  • The abducted child must be under eighteen (18) years of age;
  • The abducted child is believed to be in imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury; and
  • Additional factors are considered in the decision making process as to whether or not to activate the PA AMBER Alert Plan.  These factors include, but are not limited to: availability of descriptive information which could assist in the recovery of the child, time elapsed since the child was last seen, and reliability of witness(es).

He also noted that while AMBER Alerts can’t be utilized for all missing child cases, sometimes other missing child cases can turn into an AMBER Alert situation.

“If a child runs away with someone that we believe is not a danger and we then make further discoveries, it could rise to the level of an AMBER Alert.”

While AMBER Alerts are only utilized for child abduction situations, police still take any situation where a juvenile is missing very seriously, according to Chief Vince Markle, of the Brookville Borough Police Department.

“We will put out a BOLO (Be On the Lookout Order) through our county dispatch, and that lets all of the agencies in the area, within about a 99-mile radius, know to be on the lookout for this person.”

When it comes to any missing person, whether or not it is an abduction, one important aspect is always time.

Chief Matt Conrad, of the Punxsutawney Borough Police Department said, “The best thing for advice for the public is no matter what the situation, the earlier you report it the better, because the sooner we can get to work on it the better.”

“It’s better for us to get on it immediately than say three hours later. Even if a kid just runs out the back door, the sooner we can get on the trail the better.”

Both Trooper Chewning and Chief Markle noted that the criteria for an AMBER Alert are strict.

“We also need certain information,” Trooper Chewning noted.

“We have to try to have a reliable witness that has details, so we’re looking for the people or vehicles that were actually involved.”

The strict criteria is something lawmakers are also currently discussing.

State Representative Tony DeLuca (D-Allegheny) recently introduced H.B. 2295, a measure that would amend the Pennsylvania AMBER Alert Law, requiring the Missing Endangered Person Advisory System to be activated immediately after a parent or family member reports that their child has been abducted.

Also known as the “Nalani Johnson Rule,” DeLuca believes this measure, if enacted into law, will lead to a quicker arrest of the kidnapper, which ultimately could increase the likelihood of saving the child’s life.

The bill is named for two-year-old Nalani Johnson, who was abducted, killed, and had her body dumped in a park, roughly an hour away from where she was kidnapped in Penn Hills.

While Nalani’s father immediately reported her abduction, identified the kidnapper to police, and provided the make, model, and direction the vehicle was traveling, an AMBER Alert wasn’t immediately issued due to the strict guidelines police must follow prior to issuing the notice.

DeLuca said he believes that delay cost Nalani her life.

“When news broke of little Nalani’s abduction from my district my heart broke. As a parent, grandparent, and great-grandparent, I can’t even imagine how torturous this was for her family,” DeLuca stated in a press release.

“This fall I personally met with Nalani’s family and pledged to do whatever I could to help prevent this tragedy from ever striking another innocent family. I also have been working with their attorney, Eric Chaffin, to draft this legislation that I hope will move quickly to possibly save lives.”

House Bill 2295 is expected to be considered in the House chamber in the near future.

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