Following the 1996 kidnapping and murder of 9-year-old Amber Hagerman in Texas, broadcasters and local police in Dallas-Fort Worth established the AMBER (America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response) Alert System—an early warning system to help find abducted children.
The AMBER Alert program has since evolved into a nationwide partnership among law enforcement agencies, broadcasters, state transportation agencies, the wireless industry, and Internet service providers. An alert is issued when law enforcement determines that a child has been abducted and is in imminent danger.
“The AMBER Alert program has become synonymous with missing children, not just nationally, but internationally as well. People have learned to pay attention to these alerts because they know a child is in danger and they may be able to help—and they have helped in their safe recovery,” said John Bischoff III, Vice President of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s Missing Children Division. The center plays a critical role in the secondary distribution of AMBER Alerts.
In 2005, Hawaii became the 50th state to implement its AMBER Alert plan. Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands followed suit in 2009. The number of plans in the United States—including local, regional, and tribal plans—now stands at 86. Canada and Mexico have also established AMBER Alert plans.
The AMBER Alert program reached a major milestone in April 2020 when it marked its 1,000th successful recovery. Police officers recovered four children from a Colorado hotel after their noncustodial mother took them from a home in Wyoming. As of December 2020, AMBER Alerts have been directly responsible for the safe recoveries of 1,029 abducted children.
The Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Justice Programs serves as the National AMBER Alert coordinator.
Training and Technical Assistance Strengthen Program
OJJDP’s AMBER Alert Training and Technical Assistance program helps improve the nation’s response to missing and abducted children. In fiscal year 2020, OJJDP awarded $4.4 million to fund resources, training, and technical assistance for law enforcement and child protection officials to increase collaboration, improve their skills, and develop best practices to recover missing and abducted children.
Between October 2013 and September 2019, the program delivered 430 trainings on topics that include AMBER Alert activation best practices and prosecuting sex trafficking cases. Nearly 33,500 people received training and technical assistance onsite while 27,000 participants completed training through online courses and webinars.
The training curriculum has evolved in response to societal changes. When the AMBER Alert Training and Technical Assistance program began in 2003, for example, abductions were almost exclusively committed by sexual predators or family members. Now, child sex trafficking is a significant driver. The curriculum has adapted to changes in technology as well. Family members of abducted children and survivors also play an important role in shaping the program’s curriculum.
“We have learned so much from the families of abducted children … Their input, encouragement, and involvement have improved the way we train, respond, investigate, and interact with the families of abducted children.”
— Jim Walters, Program Administrator for the AMBER Alert Training and Technical Assistance program
OJJDP Supports Adoption of AMBER Alert Programs in Indian Country
In 2007, OJJDP launched a pilot program at 10 sites to help tribes develop the capability to respond when children are abducted. The pilots revealed that most tribes did not have adequate case management systems and faced infrastructure limitations, which made it impossible to create their own plans or collaborate with their states’ AMBER Alert plans.
To address these challenges, the AMBER Alert Training and Technical Assistance program began helping tribal communities implement AMBER Alert plans through targeted collaboration with state plans. Since 2010, the program has conducted 50 training and technical assistance projects in tribal communities and trained more than 2,000 tribal child protection officials. In 2015, OJJDP launched the AMBER Alert in Indian Country website, which provides resources on child protection and prevention of victimization, exploitation, and trafficking in tribal communities.
Gaps still remain in tribal communities’ efforts to implement AMBER Alert plans. In response to the 2016 abduction and murder of 11-year-old Ashlynne Mike from a Navajo reservation, Congress passed the Ashlynne Mike AMBER Alert in Indian Country Act in 2018. The Act requires the Attorney General to provide grants to states and federally recognized tribes to support AMBER Alert communications plans and integrate tribal systems with state plans.
OJJDP continues to help tribal communities participate in their state AMBER Alert plans; currently, more than 100 tribes have access to their state plans.
The AMBER Alert program has come a long way since it first began. The nationwide program that exists today is a testament to the dedication of stakeholders at the federal, state, and local levels that have helped extend the network, expand the number and kinds of channels used to broadcast alerts, and improve the capacity of communities to safely recover missing, endangered, and abducted children.
AMBER Alert Field Guide for Law Enforcement Officers discusses suggested practices in key areas such as the initial on-scene response and investigation, the establishment of tip call centers and management of tip information, the use of Child Abduction Response Teams, and search and recovery operations.
The second edition of AMBER Alert Best Practices provides law enforcement and other first responders with online, comprehensive, best-practice recommendations on field operations, including the mapping of key decision points in the life cycle of an AMBER Alert.
Implementation of the Ashlynne Mike AMBER Alert in Indian Country Act of 2018: A Report to Congress discusses the readiness, education, and training needs; technological challenges; and specific obstacles tribes encounter when integrating with their states’ AMBER Alert plans.