Evelyn Boswell is a 15-month-old girl missing in Tennessee. Andrew Caballeiro was a week old when he was last seen in Florida. Osiel Rico, 3, has been missing from New Mexico for nearly two months.
To try and find them, authorities are using a system created nearly 25 years ago: AMBER Alerts.
The alerts, short for America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response, are used across all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and 30 other countries.
AMBER Alerts have helped bring home nearly 1,000 children since their inception in 1996. In 2018, 155 cases of the 161 issued alerts resulted in recovery.
Here’s what you need to know about the program:
Why are AMBER Alerts not issued for all missing children?
There was never an AMBER Alert for 6-year-old Faye Swetlik, who went missing in South Carolina earlier this month. Faye was found dead three days later.
South Carolina officials say it’s necessary a missing child case meets all the required criteria for an alert. From the more than 3,500 cases of missing children in the state last year, there was one AMBER Alert.
“If you break that number down to how many Amber Alerts a day, if they did not meet the criteria and did it on a reporting missing child, when I did the math last week, it averages 12 notifications a day,” Tommy Crosby, a spokesperson for the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, told CNN affiliate WCIV.
But just because an alert isn’t issued for a child doesn’t mean authorities aren’t using other tools to investigate, Crosby told the news station.
The alert is used for the “most serious cases of child abduction,” the Justice Department says.
“Overuse of AMBER Alert could result in the public becoming desensitized to Alerts when they are issued,” it says.
What’s the criteria for an alert?
The alert criteria is put in place by each state — but the Justice Department has a few recommended guidelines that are followed widely across the country:
- Authorities believe the child may have been abducted
- The child was 17 years old or younger
- The child is in imminent danger or injury or death
- There’s enough information about the child and abduction for an alert
- Child’s name and other data have been issued into a national database that’s accessible to law enforcement across the country
While most states follow that list, some criteria may differ slightly in different states and municipalities.
Tennessee, for example, also requires that when another state asks them to expand an AMBER Alert into their territory, that state identifies how Tennessee may be connected and communicates that to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, the bureau’s website says.
Are there national AMBER Alerts?
There are state/territory, regional and local alerts. There are no nationwide ones, according to the Justice Department, but alerts can be expanded to multiple states and territories.
Each alert is “geographically targeted” based on authorities’ investigations, the department says.
Texas has consistently issued the highest number of AMBER Alerts, issuing 23 in 2018, 26 in 2017 and 16 the year prior, according to data from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC).
But there is a national alert coordinator. What do they do?
The national coordinator for AMBER Alerts is the Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Justice Programs within the Justice Department.
Think of this role as a support system for the states.
That coordinator will make sure there are no area gaps between AMBER Alerts, provide guidance on the criteria and help states develop their strategies.
How does an alert make it to my phone?
Once authorities have confirmed a missing child case meets their criteria, they work with broadcasters, transportation agencies and the wireless industry to get the alert out everywhere — through the radio, TV, road signs, Facebook, Google, Yahoo and other devices.
The NCEMC then helps distribute that information even further.
Working with state officials and law enforcement, the nonprofit helps send a Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) — which is the text-like message you get on your phone.
Those alerts must always be authorized by government and will also include things like tornado and flash flood warnings from the National Weather Service or Presidential Alerts during a national emergency, FEMA says.
What about the other kids who go missing?
Authorities say when a case doesn’t meet the criteria for an AMBER Alert, there are still a variety of channels to help them get the word out.
In Tennessee, the TBIissues an Endangered Child Alert (ECA) to local media when they believe a child may be in danger.
“The TBI also uses social media to further share the relevant information,” the bureau’s website says.
Local and state agencies may also include missing children on their websites and social media channels.
The NCMEC also has a database of children who went missing, most of which are accompanied by posters with identifying information and a picture.
Who is Amber?
While the alert is an acronym, the abduction and killing of 9-year-old Amber Hagerman helped inspire the beginning of the now national program.
Dallas-Fort Worth police began a partnership with broadcasters in the area to create an emergency alert system for abducted children in honor of Amber.
She was last seen riding her bike in Arlington, Texas, in January 1996. Just days after she went missing, her body was found in a creek a few miles from her home.