AMBER Alert: Cure or thin Band-Aid?

The child-abduction alert system may not “save lives” as it is claims.


The AMBER Alert has become increasingly integrated into smartphone technology and social media platforms, but the child-abduction alert system may be oversold, an AMBER Alert expert says.

“We hastily pass these laws and legislations and these programs, and we evaluate them based on their intentions rather than their demonstrated benefits,” said Timothy Griffin, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Nevada who specializes in the AMBER Alert.

An example, said Griffin, is the abduction of 3-year-old Elinor Trotta, who was taken by her father Michael Trotta in Delaware and was recovered unharmed shortly after. Within the first three hours of abduction-murder cases, 74 percent of children are killed, according to a 2011 FBI report.

In Elinor’s case, the recovery time was approximately 18 hours — long after that crucial three-hour window. Even though the abductor was said to have physically abused the girl’s mother, very few children are killed when abducted by a parent, Griffin said. Although the AMBER Alert didn’t aid in Trotta’s recovery, her case is analogous to many cases where the AMBER Alert does play a role in the recovery, he said.

“They should only be issued in situations where the abduction is immediately reported and there’s immediate evidence that that abductor is someone truly menacing,” said Griffin. “Maybe then they could get more bang for the buck out of the system, because when alerts are issued people would know it’s serious.”

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Some AMBER Alert advocates say that if the system is helping to recover any abducted child, then it is doing its job.

“I look at one child recovered and say it was worth putting in place,” said David Thelen, CEO of the Committee of Missing Children, an advocacy group that helps parents of missing children. “It’s an extremely good system, and we could have used it years and years ago.”

The AMBER Alert, established in 1996 after 9-year-old Amber Hagerman was abducted and murdered in Arlington, Texas, is the primary alert system for child abduction cases. In 2013, about 21 percent of children were successfully recovered due to the AMBER Alert, according to a report by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Despite these success stories, there are major problems with the alert system that need to be considered, Griffin said.

AMBER stands for “America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response.” The alert system was designed to help save the lives of children like Amber. However, a 2010 study of the AMBER Alert found the claim that the system is “saving lives” to be misleading. The study took a sample of 448 AMBER Alert cases and analyzed whether the ones where children were recovered suggested a “lifesaving” rescue.

The researchers found that, although in over 25 percent of cases studied the AMBER Alert aided in the recovery of an the abducted child, there was little evidence that AMBER Alerts “save lives” as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says it does, Griffin said.

“In the vast majority of the AMBER Alert success cases, there really wasn’t any life threatening peril as proven by the fact that these hundreds of very similar cases where the AMBER Alert had no effect also ended up just fine for the kid,” said Griffin, the lead author of the study.

In AMBER Alert cases where there is a rescue, the abductor is usually a family member who is not planning on hurting the child, said Griffin, who has reviewed more than 1,000 AMBER Alert cases. The AMBER Alert system does not seem to protect against abductors who are actually out to harm the child, he said.

The main issue with the AMBER Alert is that it is run state-by-state and there is no continuity with how it is used, said Thelen. There needs to be consistency with the criteria that is used when issuing an AMBER Alert, he said.

“They have to make sure they did their due diligence looking at the circumstances before they issue an alert,” said Thelen. “If you use it too much it waters it down.”

This watered-down affect can be seen in the AMBER Alert issued in Trotta’s case, which led to what Griffin calls “AMBER-fatigue.” This is where the public becomes desensitized to the alerts from too many unnecessary reports.

Trotta’s AMBER Alert was issued as an “extraordinary threat to life or property” and sent out by the Wireless Emergency Alerts to cell phones across New Jersey — nowhere near where the child was recovered — waking many at 4 a.m.

It’s almost like the AMBER Alert is a very, very thin Band-Aid on a much, much larger social problem.”

– Timothy Griffin

Professor of Criminal Justice, University of Nevada

Photo by Levi Sharpe

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A survey put out by found that around 35 percent (2,107 people) voted that they would now completely shut off AMBER Alerts on their phone after the incident.

In 2013, 7 percent of AMBER Alerts were reported to be a “hoax,” or false report, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Griffin said his biggest fear is that people will think that the solution to the child abduction problem is solely the AMBER Alert system. When the NCMEC states that the Amber Alert is “saving hundreds of lives,” this overselling may distract people from where the real problems are, Griffin said. The focus should be on what can be done to ensure that children are not in “pre-abduction” situations such as homes where there is constant fighting, drug or alcohol abuse and criminal records, he said.

“It’s almost like the AMBER Alert is a very, very thin Band-Aid on a much, much larger social problem,” Griffin said.