Amber alerts: coming soon to Serbia?
Amber alerts: coming soon to Serbia?
Amber alerts are messages distributed by a rapid child abduction alert system. Once the system is activated, it immediately triggers a series of actions intended to help find the child that involve co-operation between the authorities, media outlets, and the general public. Amber alerts can be instrumental in saving the life of a child, as it is critical to minimise the delay between disappearance and the start of the rescue effort.
The system was first created in the United States in 1996 and is named after Amber Hagerman, a nine-year-old girl from Texas who was abducted while riding a bicycle in 1996 and was found dead five days later. It is assumed that lack of public awareness contributed to the failure to find Amber.
Today, Amber alerts are successfully used both in the US and most European countries, and, crucially, they prove successful in more than 90 percent of child abduction cases.
If a child is reported as abducted or missing, the police are required to notify the media within one hour after the child has gone missing. The media immediately interrupt any scheduled programming to broadcast a news flash about the missing child, including photographs and any additional information (e.g. where and with whom the child was last seen, what it was wearing, who may have kidnapped it, and the like). The goal is to get the news out by as many means as possible – primarily on television, radio and social media, so that as many people as possible learn about the child’s disappearance in the shortest time.
In addition, all mobile operators send SMS and MMS messages to their subscribers’ phones, and information about the missing child is flashed on outdoor information screens in urban areas and alongside motorways, where possible in retail chain stores, and at cashpoints, petrol stations, and mobile billboards. This allows the information to reach a large section of the public in a very short time, so they are able to remember the child’s face and recognise it if they see it. This greatly helps the police in their search as the public are able to provide information that may prove vital.
A wide variety of situations are possible in practice. For example, a petrol station employee or supermarket cashier can quite accidentally recognise a child reported as missing, or recognise the vehicle reportedly driven by the kidnapper, or the child may have been kidnapped by someone completely unexpected, such as a family members or family friend. Someone looking after a child may not be aware that the child in their care had actually been kidnapped until they see an alert.
The thought that occurs to every person when they see a missing child alert is, ‘what are the chances I will recognise the child, or ‘what are the chances I will see the kidnapper’s car’. As it turns out, however, the likelihood of this is greater than we may think. For example, Diane Simone, who came up with the idea for the system after the death of nine-year-old Amber, has said that ‘the problem isn’t that no one saw them but that no one knew what they were seeing’.
Alerts commonly remain active for less than 24 hours, and are re-assessed every 6 hours to determine whether they should be inactivated earlier.
Each country is able to independently set criteria for activating its Amber alerts. These criteria, however, must ensure that the alert is activated only in situations where the threat is felt to be justified, to avoid harming the credibility of the system. Overuse of the alert where no child is actually in danger may cause the public to ignore future notifications.
Most European countries employ the following criteria for their Amber alert arrangements:
– The missing person must be a minor;
– Basic information must be available, such as the child’s appearance (height, weight, hair and eye colour) and the clothes it was wearing at the time it disappeared or was abducted;
– The circumstances surrounding the disappearance must be unknown;
– There must be a suspicion that the kidnapper intends to harm the child;
– The police must confirm that activating the alert will not endanger the child’s life.
For example, if a 16-year-old runs away from home, no alert will not be issued as they are considered to be a young adult. Conversely, if the child is below the age threshold, which is usually 13 years of age, one of the conditions will be met and the alert will be triggered.
Current situation in Serbia
In early March 2020, the Ministry of Justice created a mixed working group to draft a law governing Amber alerts, so taking the first step towards introducing the system in Serbia.
Apart from officers of the Ministry of Justice, the working party comprises representatives of the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Culture and Information, and the Ministry of Trade, Tourism and Telecommunications. Media outlets will also be consulted as their participation is key to introducing the Amber alert system and ensuring its success.
The Tijana Jurić Foundation, set up in memory of a girl abducted and killed in 2014, has been leading the effort to introduce Amber alerts in Serbia. On 25 May, International Missing Children’s Day, they released a statement emphasising the importance of disseminating information about missing children as broadly as possible, noting that ‘Every year, between 1,300 and 1,500 children go missing in Serbia, and, although the word “missing” is mostly associated with abduction, the reasons why children go missing are many and varied, and a child can simply run away from home or an institution. Many disappearances, however, go completely unreported: few of them reach the public, and then only due to the efforts of families“.
On the same occasion, the Ministry of Justice announced that ‘Amber alerts should improve existing arrangements for finding missing children, and the working party’s findings are expected to be made public soon’.
Another initiative of the Tijana Jurić Foundation resulted in one improvement to the current system, with the 2015 amendment of the Police Law, one year after Tijana’s death. This change removed the requirement for at least 24 hours to have elapsed since disappearance; instead, search for a missing child can start immediately after a report is filed. The article of the Law is fittingly called ‘Tijana’s Law’.
There is no doubt that Amber Alerts would make it easier to quickly find missing children in Serbia, as the system has already proven its worth in other countries. Abduction, disappearances and even the exploitation of children are terms we hear about more and more often, and we are aware of the increasingly present danger that lurk them on the way home, school, relatives… It is up to us to do our best in attempting to create the safest possible environment in which children will grow and develop, through the adoption and application of such measures, in order to help children in the first place, and thus ourselves.