Are we overreacting?

Child abduction alerts can lose effectiveness if they're overdone

Nothing is more panic-inducing than the abduction of a child, particularly by a stranger.

For most of human history, we’ve under-reacted to such situations. Only in recent decades have authorities given frantic parents the benefit of the doubt and issued missing-persons alerts.

It’s gotten even better than that. With the help of today’s technology, and the eagerness of broadcasters to help, missing children’s reports can be sent to everyone with a television almost instantly. All 50 states have some form of emergency broadcasts of child abduction reports.

Nationally, it’s called an “Amber Alert” – a name that’s both an acronym and a
memorial: It stands for “America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response,” but it’s really named after 9-year-old Amber Hagerman, who was kidnapped off her bicycle in Arlington, Texas, and murdered.

Similarly, in Georgia, “Levi’s Call” is named after 11-year-old Levi Frady – who, too, was kidnapped off his bicycle in Forsyth County, Ga., and murdered.

After the Georgia Bureau of Investigation is convinced the criteria have been met – including reasonable belief of an abduction of someone 17 or younger and a description of both victim and perpetrator – “Broadcasters are requested to run the alert at least twice the first hour and once every hour for the next three hours,” according to the GBI website.

It’s a delicate balance, however. You don’t want to overplay your hand and start crying wolf, by interrupting television programming across the region or state without a firm belief that a child truly has been kidnapped and is in imminent danger.

On the other hand, you want to err on the side of child protection. You don’t want authorities to avoid issuing an alert and then wind up with a deceased child.

We were reminded of the dilemma Sunday, when area broadcasts were interrupted with an alert for a missing Savannah-area teen believed to be in the custody of a man headed toward Atlanta.

The 14-year-old girl was found safe Monday in Norcross. And, as it turns out, she had left with a 24-year-old man she’d met on a phone chat line. She had posed as a 19-year-old. News reports indicate the man came from Norcross to see her and left with her after a confrontation with her parents.

This incident may have met the requirements for the statewide alert – and, for all we know, she might have been in danger.

But in hindsight, the circumstances may make some think there was an overreaction – and that can risk dulling people’s senses to future alerts.

In addition, the blaring, inescapable nature of the alerts is more than a little disconcerting.

They also may distort the truth – which, as one observer put it, is that child abductions are “among the rarest of crimes against children.”

“Kidnapping,” writes Niesha Lofing in the Sacramento Bee, “makes up less than 2 percent of all violent crimes against juveniles reported to police, with stranger kidnapping being the most uncommon form of reported kidnappings.”

In a report by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, she notes, it seems that of 58,200 child abductions reported before 2000, only 115 were the stereotypical stranger kidnappings we all fear.

That doesn’t mean we should lower our guard. Only that we should keep our wits about us.

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Fri, 12/09/2016 - 11:13

Rick McKee Editorial Cartoon