Study finds AMBER Alerts are great drama, but have few successes.

I don’t know if you folks in other countries have a similar system, but here in America we have something called an AMBER Alert which is used to get the word out about abducted children in hopes of someone phoning in a tip quickly before the child is harmed.  The word AMBER is a backronym for “America’s Missing: Broadcasting Emergency Response” as well as being the name of a little girl whose abduction and murder brought about the legislation that created the system. Most of the states, including Michigan, participate in the program in some fashion and when activated messages will go out on TV, radio, electronic highway signs, digital billboards, SMS text messages, and even in some places on lottery tickets. Details on the child’s physical appearance and (if the medium allows it) a picture will be included.

It seems like a good idea that should result in saved lives, but very few people have ever questioned if it actually works. Now at least one study says it often doesn’t make a difference:

The program’s champions say that its successes have been dramatic. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, more than 400 children have been saved by Amber Alerts. Of the 17 children Massachusetts has issued alerts on since it created its system in 2003, all have been safely returned.

These are encouraging statistics – but also deeply misleading, according to some of the only outside scholars to examine the system in depth. In the first independent study of whether Amber Alerts work, a team led by University of Nevada criminologist Timothy Griffin looked at hundreds of abduction cases between 2003 and 2006 and found that Amber Alerts – for all their urgency and drama – actually accomplish little. In most cases where they were issued, Griffin found, Amber Alerts played no role in the eventual return of abducted children. Their successes were generally in child custody fights that didn’t pose a risk to the child. And in those rare instances where kidnappers did intend to rape or kill the child, Amber Alerts usually failed to save lives.

[…] “Amber Alert is a victim of its own fantastically good intentions,” says Griffin. “If someone gets ahold of a kid and has sufficiently nasty intentions, in the long run there’s not much we can do.”

Defenders of the program reject Griffin’s argument. Some dismiss it as needless hair-splitting, while others question his data. And, considering the grim stakes, most see little point in criticizing a tool that saves any lives at all. “If an Amber Alert saves any child, don’t you think it was worth it?” says Terrel Harris, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security.

What Amber Alerts do create, its critics say, is a climate of fear around a tragic but extremely rare event, pumping up public anxiety. Griffin calls it “crime control theater,” and his critique of Amber Alerts fits into a larger complaint on the part of some criminologists about crime-fighting measures – often passed in the wake of horrific, highly publicized crimes – that originate from strong emotions rather than research into what actually works. Whether it’s child sex-offender registries or “three strikes” criminal-sentencing rules, these policies, critics warn, can prove ineffective, sometimes costly, and even counterproductive, since they heighten public fears and distract from threats that are at once more common and more tractable.

“The problem with these politically expedient solutions is that they look good but do very little to solve the problem,” says Jack Levin, a professor of sociology and criminology at Northeastern.

The researchers go on to point out that there are some successes, even a couple of very dramatic ones, and they admit their results are preliminary at the moment, but the results seem to indicate that the system doesn’t play a huge role in the vast majority of cases. Still the fact that it does play a role in at least some cases is more than enough justification on the part of supporters to keep the system:

To supporters of the system, these arguments are at once misguided and dangerous. To say that only children snatched by unrelated child rapists are truly in danger, they argue, is setting the bar too high. Any abduction is deeply traumatic for a child, they argue, and a parent with a gun has certainly put that child in harm’s way.

“There’s an extremely high level of danger in violent domestic disputes,” says Robert Hoever, who directs the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s Amber Alert program.

But more generally, Amber Alert’s defenders take issue with the idea that a low success rate should be seen as a fault with the program. Just because the Amber Alert system doesn’t save more children than it does, they argue, hardly qualifies it as a failure.

“It doesn’t cost anybody anything,” argues Tyler Cox, operations manager for radio station WBAP, chairman of the Dallas/Fort Worth Amber Plan Task Force, and one of the people who helped create the original Amber Alert. “There’s no expense to operating an Amber Alert system if you’re doing it the right way.”

The authors of the study, however, say that there’s still a cost inherent in the program even if it’s more psychological than monetary:

“It creates a sense of paranoia, not only in parents, but in children themselves,” says James Alan Fox, a Northeastern University professor of criminal justice.

Historically, crimes against children have shown a particular tendency to inspire strong measures. The criminologist Kristen Zgoba, now a researcher with the New Jersey Department of Corrections, has looked at the genesis of Amber Alert and Megan’s Law (named after a raped and murdered 7-year-old, Megan’s Law established state registries for sex offenders). Zgoba argues that while the number of stranger abductions and murders of children has remained steady over the years, public fear around the issue has fluctuated wildly, cohering into national panics from time to time, as in the summer of 2002, when several high-profile disappearances led cable news channels to proclaim the “summer of abduction.”

In fact, according to Fox, stranger abductions remain exceedingly rare: In the United States, he calculates, the odds of a child being kidnapped by someone he or she doesn’t know are roughly one in a million. “We tell kids, ‘Don’t talk to strangers, they all want to abduct you,’ but if a child needs assistance, a stranger will generally help them, not hurt them,” Fox argues.

This is, of course, little consolation to parents who have lost children to kidnappers. But, according to Fox, if we want to save children’s lives, we’d do better to worry about loosely enforced bicycle helmet and seat-belt laws, or the safety standards of school buses – all of which are much more statistically dangerous but lack comparably high-profile systems for stoking public concern.

There are far too many laws on the books that were created because of strong emotions taking precedence over logic and reason and the results have been mixed at best. The idiocy of Zero Tolerance laws, for example, have made it impossible for someone who got onto a Sex Offender registry because they had consensual sex as a teenager with another teenager to find a place to live or a job or, even more ludicrous, resulting in some teenager being kicked out of school for carrying aspirin in her purse.

It’s fair to ask if the program actually makes a difference or if the time and effort involved could be better spent elsewhere. If it truly costs no money and it does help a fair amount of children then the AMBER system should be kept in place, but if it’s largely just making people paranoid for no good reason then maybe there are better ways to “think of the children.”

2 thoughts on “Study finds AMBER Alerts are great drama, but have few successes.

  1. I don’t know how much of this is due to the Amber program,  but one result of the increasing fear parents have about their children in America is the disappearance of kids from the streets in suburbia.  When I was growing up in El Cerrito (in the SF Bay Area), there were kids everywhere outside: playing on the sidewalk or in the parks, walking to school or the store.  Now there are no kids to be seen: their parents drive them to school and the mall, and the parks and sidewalks are deserted.  Exactly what effect this has on their lives is hard to say, but I bet it’s not good.

  2. It has also resulted in adults being afraid to help children in a takes-a-village way, for fear of being accused of something.

    There used to be a statistic bandied around by advocacy groups that 60,000 children were abducted every year.  FBI says around 600.  That’s the difference between keeping your kids off the street, and just making sure they’re aware of how predators behave.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.