Bad News, Good News

The Texas-bred Amber Plan for missing kids works and is spreading

In the Dallas area, the unusual alliance works like this: When law enforcement is made aware, generally through a 911 call, of an abduction that meets the strict guidelines set down by the Amber Plan designers (unlike California, the missing child has to be 15 or under or, if older, have a physical or mental disability and believed to be in danger of serious harm), the information is immediately transmitted to radio stations KRLD and WBAP. They relay the information to all radio and TV stations within a 60-mile radius and the Amber alert is broadcast or appears as a crawl along the bottom of TV screens.

"One of the things we initially had to overcome," Cox says, "was the concern on the part of some members of the media about what they perceived as 'turning the airwaves over to law enforcement.' There were some who had to be reminded that the reason they were licensed in the first place was to provide programming that was in the public interest, convenience and necessity. Once everyone got comfortable with the concept, the program began to grow."

It was, originators agreed, also important that the alert not be overused. "This program is not for dealing with runaways or children that have been taken by a relative involved in some kind of family dispute," Anderson says. "It is designed to react to only the most dire of situations."

Donna Norris lost a child to an abductor, but the Amber Plan, named for her daughter, lives on.
Mark Graham
Donna Norris lost a child to an abductor, but the Amber Plan, named for her daughter, lives on.
The system bearing Amber Hagerman's name is saving lives nationwide.
The system bearing Amber Hagerman's name is saving lives nationwide.

Despite its record of success in the area, only now is a move afoot to put the program into widespread use in Texas. This week, Governor Rick Perry announced plans to soon have the system used statewide. To date, several cities, including Houston and Wichita Falls, have local alert systems modeled after the Arlington-based plan, but no statewide program is in place. That, says Kirk Watson, a Democratic candidate for state attorney general, will soon change. "It is clear that there is a system available that will work very well," he said on a recent campaign stop.

Earlier, the Texas Department of Transportation announced that it is developing a strategy to participate in Amber Plan alerts by borrowing from the California idea of using electronic highway and freeway signs, generally used to alert motorists to traffic, weather and construction conditions, to provide information on child abductions.

Among those urging quick adoption of a statewide alert system is Saginaw mother Patricia Bradbury, who can attest to the effectiveness of the Amber Plan. Hers is its first success story.

In November 1998, she and her husband returned to their Arlington home to find their 2-month-old daughter Rae-Leigh and her 42-year-old baby sitter gone. The Bradburys phoned police and the Amber alert was soon being broadcast throughout the area.

Recalling the story, Tyler Cox reaches into a file cabinet to retrieve an audiotape of the 911 call that resulted in Rae-Leigh's rescue. On it, a man driving along Interstate 20, south of Grand Prairie, says that he had just heard the alert and the description of the pickup that the baby sitter was driving. "It's right in front of me," the excited man says before giving his location. Minutes later, police stopped the truck, arrested the abductor and returned the child to her parents.

"It is the perfect example of how critical time is in situations like this. Another 30 minutes or an hour and there's no way to tell how far away that baby might have been," Cox notes.

The triumphs have steadily mounted. In March '99, Dallas police credited the Amber Plan with the safe return of 9-year-old Fleisha Moore after she was abducted by a man as she walked home from school. The abductor, after hearing the Amber alert broadcast on his pickup radio, stopped on a road in rural Navarro County and ordered the child out of his vehicle. Within hours a call came to police, reporting her location, and she was returned home unharmed. In Houston, it took less than three hours to rescue 5-year-old Maria Cuellar after she had been kidnapped by a man driving a stolen ambulance.

It has, in fact, even worked in ways it was not designed to. Last winter, a mother came out of a laundry to find that her car and 5-month-old baby were gone. Immediately after she called 911, the Amber alert was issued and descriptions of the car and the child were broadcast. Within 30 minutes a towing-company driver, hearing the alert, phoned his dispatcher to say he'd just taken a car that matched the description to the city pound. The sleeping child was found in the backseat, hidden behind tinted windows.

"How can anyone argue against the use of such an effective tool?" the evangelical Anderson asks. "When I'm asked to speak to people who are considering the use of the plan, I always close my presentation with the observation that it is much better to have this program in place and never need it than to need it and not have it."

The Amber Plan, he is convinced, has also become a deterrent to those contemplating the kidnapping of children, pointing to statistics that, despite the recent rash of cases, show a reduction of such crimes. "Over the years, the program has become well-known enough that those considering abducting a child have to know that they're going to be the focus of an alert. They know it works."

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