Twelve-year-old Larry Anthony Fountain just happened to leave his backpack on a South Carolina school playground, triggering a statewide Amber Alert that falsely reported his kidnapping. Police in Arkansas issued an alert for 6-year-old Adrian Lee Justice even though they knew he was lost in the woods, not abducted.
They are just two of dozens of recent Amber Alerts that should never have been issued, even according to the most ardent advocates for missing children.
Amber Alerts are supposed to be "a fire bell in the night" a rare application of emergency radio and television alert systems to rescue kidnapped children in the critical first minutes after they've been abducted by strangers.
But nearly a decade after the kidnapping and murder of 9-year-old Amber Hagerman sparked the nationwide system, a Scripps Howard News Service study has found that police are flagrantly overusing the alerts meant to prevent more deaths like hers. False alarms are so widespread that many advocates now say they fear that the public will start tuning out the bulletins even when children are in real danger.
Police last year issued at least 48 Amber Alerts for children who had not actually been kidnapped, often defying federal and state guidelines on how the system should be used, according to Scripps Howard's study.
Traditional cases of abduction children taken by strangers or who were unlawfully traveling with adults other than their legal guardians accounted for less than a third of the Amber Alerts issued in 2004.
Out of 233 Amber Alerts issued last year, at least 46 were made for children who were lost, had run away or were the subjects of hoaxes and misunderstandings, according to the Scripps Howard study, which used records from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. That's despite the urgings of the U.S. Justice Department that Amber Alerts be used only in cases of kidnapping and only when the child is in immediate danger of physical harm.
Police also violated federal and state guidelines by issuing dozens of vague alerts with little information upon which the public can act. The study found that 23 alerts were issued last year even though police didn't know the name of the child who supposedly had been abducted. Twenty-five alerts were issued without complete details about the suspect or a description of the vehicle used in the abduction.
Advocates for missing children worry that misuse of the system could erode the credibility of Amber Alerts in the public's mind.
"We thought the Amber Alert was going to change the whole way we get our missing children back," said John Walsh, host of TV's "America's Most Wanted" and the father of a child who was kidnapped and murdered. "But we're finding some states don't know how to do this. Some have written their own bizarre criteria that completely negates the intention of the Amber Alert."
As founder of the Louisiana-based Code Amber, an Internet service that tracks Amber Alerts nationwide, Bryant Harper sees the problems as potentially devastating for the program.
"I'm afraid the system is going to implode," Harper said. "Amber Alerts are going to be used more and more, often in inappropriate ways. And the more they are used when not warranted, the more people will start ignoring them."
Some state officials are also concerned.
"An Amber Alert is a fire bell in the night, a call to action. We want people to be on the lookout," North Carolina alert coordinator Perry Stewart said. "If we don't have sufficient descriptive information, do we really need to issue an Amber Alert and get people in an uproar?"
Stewart last month refused a request by a South Carolina sheriff to rebroadcast that state's alert for 2-year-old Trinity Nicole Casey, later found drowned in a lake near her home. Stewart said the South Carolina alert was too vague, lacking any proof the girl had been abducted. "I don't want our system so diluted that people see these alerts as a nuisance," he said.
The Scripps Howard study determined that similarly flawed Amber Alerts were issued in Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee and Texas.
All 50 states have adopted some form of the Amber Alert, usually giving police authority to use the Emergency Alert System to interrupt radio and television programming to announce a kidnapping. The program began informally when radio stations in the Dallas-Fort Worth area agreed to issue alerts after Amber Hagerman's brutal slaying in 1996.
"Amber Alerts have become an increasingly important tool in rescuing kidnapped children by quickly getting key information about the missing child and about the suspect out to the public," President Bush said while signing the 2003 law that helped states establish Amber Alert programs.
The law provided grant money to states and created the post of a federal alert coordinator empowered "to set clear and uniform voluntary standards for the use of Amber Alerts across our country," Bush said.
Under the Justice Department's recommended criteria, Amber Alerts should be issued only when police:
Have a "reasonable belief" that an abduction of a child has occurred.
Are convinced the missing child is "at risk for serious bodily harm or death."
Have "sufficient descriptive information" about the victim, suspect or vehicle used in the kidnapping so that the public can assist police in locating the child.
"Of course, there are going to be some calls that turn out to be false alarms," said former Assistant Attorney General Deborah J. Daniels, the nation's first Amber Alert coordinator. "But we hope for at least partial information in the alert itself. If there is nothing for citizens to go on, the alert really doesn't do any good. Law-enforcement agencies have to make their best judgments."
The Scripps Howard study also found that alerts were issued for 117 children (50 percent) who where categorized as "family abductions" by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Many of these involved custody disputes between divorcing or estranged parents. Only 70 alerts (30 percent) were categorized as "non-family abductions."
According to Justice Department guidelines issued last year, "stranger abductions are the most dangerous for children and thus are primary to the mission of an Amber Alert." But the policy does not tell police what to do when a child is taken in a custody dispute.
"We did not specify that we wanted Amber Alerts issued only for stereotypical stranger abductions," Daniels said. "After all, there are plenty of cases in which parental abduction is dangerous."
Police concede that they sometimes struggle in family-abduction cases to prove that a child in the company of the father or mother is truly in imminent danger.
"It's a no-win situation for us," said Lt. L.D. Maples, coordinator of the Amber Alert program for California, where 64 percent of last year's alarms were cases of alleged family abduction. "Someone has taken the kids without the rights to have them. It may not be the stereotypical abduction, but the parent is still playing the part of an abductor."
Maples said he sometimes must defend alerts he's issued, particularly in parental cases. "We are asked, 'Why was this an abduction?' We refer the question back to the local police agency, which has sworn that the case met all of the necessary criteria."
In the 48 cases in which Amber Alerts were issued for children whom police later determined were not kidnapped, authorities were often forced to retract the bulletins or to say the youths were "recovered" after misunderstandings among family members had been sorted out. (In at least two cases, the alerts were canceled after police found the children were in the company of their grandparents.)
Confusion by witnesses who misunderstood what they had observed was a common source of erroneous Amber Alerts.
"In my opinion, it's better to err on the side of caution and issue an alert," said Montgomery County, Texas, Sheriff's Lt. Joe Sclider. "But, frequently, you are damned if you do and damned if you don't."
Sclider on June 16 issued an Amber Alert for a "white female, 5- to 8-years-old with shoulder-length brown hair" after two young girls playing in their front yard thought they saw a girl being forced into a black van against her will. He canceled the alert the next day when no one in the Houston area stepped forward to report a missing child.
"This could have been the case of a parent picking up a young child who didn't want to go to day care," Sclider said.
About a third of the 32 Texas alerts in the Scripps Howard study were cases in which, apparently, no one was kidnapped. More than a quarter of the Texas alerts also were issued with scanty information either lacking the victim's name or with little or no description of the suspects.
Texas officials conceded that some of the Amber Alerts issued in their state last year did not meet state standards. "Local law-enforcement agencies must confirm they've made an investigation and that they believe an abduction has taken place. Beyond that, it's their call," said Tela Mange, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Officials in several other states also said they have little authority to deny a local police department's request for an alert. Both of South Carolina's alerts last year lacked any description of a suspect or a vehicle used in the alleged abduction.
"We can only put out the information the locals give us," said Kathryn Richardson, a spokeswoman for the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division.
She said that's why South Carolina issued a statewide alert for Larry Anthony Fountain after his abandoned backpack was found on the playground of his middle school. Neighbors, after hearing the alert, found the boy walking along a road near his home. He reportedly left the schoolyard because he was upset at receiving a detention.
Unlike these states, officials in Florida frequently refuse to authorize Amber Alerts sought by local police. The state issued 22 alerts last year while denying 24 requests.
Still, an alert was issued because someone reported seeing a teenager being forced into the trunk of a car. It turned out to be a youthful prank in an overcrowded car. "There wasn't enough room for all of the kids to fit in the passenger seats," said Lee Condon, coordinator of the Florida Missing and Exploited Children Clearinghouse.
Also, the study found that five of the Florida alerts were vague, including alarms for an "unknown white male, 4-years-old" and for a "9- or 10-year-old black female." In four of these alerts, no abduction occurred.
Some states have adopted Amber Alert policies that clearly ignore the federal guidelines requiring evidence of abduction. Arkansas State Police spokesman Bill Sadler said an alert was issued for Adrian Lee Justice last year, even though authorities knew the boy was lost in the woods. Adrian was located about a mile from his home.
In that case, police issued what they call a "level two" alert, a unique kind of alarm in Arkansas that does not interrupt radio and television programming but does send official advisories to news organizations throughout the state that a child is missing.
Despite the flaws in the program, many of the Amber Alerts issued last year involved serious cases of child abduction. The Justice Department credits last year's alerts with helping to recover 71 missing children. In several cases, abductors decided to free the children in their custody after seeing their photographs on television.
Federal authorities agree that mistakes have been made, but Daniels said, "It is very difficult for police to make these calls. They are under tremendous pressure from terrified parents to issue an Amber Alert. While we strongly urged police not to overuse these alerts, we also advise them to err on the side of caution. They should issue an alert if there is a good chance a child is in danger."
(Contact Thomas Hargrove at hargrovet(at)shns.com)