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AMBER alerts place us on "high alert" but not be effective in protecting kids

Few things are scarier than a self-righteous mob bent on saving lives and keeping people safe, facts be damned. In the middle of the night my cell phone went off. I looked at the screen. An AMBER alert had been issued. Another went off a few minutes later.

Little kids should not be in jeopardy. However, despite news items of individual successes or articles published by those who advocate for the system itself, a peer-review study suggests the alerts are not so effective.

Timothy Griffin is an associate professor of criminology at the University of Nevada-Reno, He led a 2015 study, published in 39 Journal of Crime and Justice No. 4 (2016). In a “sample of 448 child abduction cases in which [an AMBER] Alert was issued ...

We reached conclusions consistent with the scant available prior research on AMBER Alert: although over 25% of the Alerts facilitated the recovery of abducted child(ren) and are thus arguably ‘successful’ by that standard alone, ...

there was little evidence AMBER Alerts ‘save lives.’ In fact, AMBER Alert success cases are in almost every measurable way identical to AMBER Alert cases in which the child(ren) were returned unharmed but the Alert had no direct role in that outcome:...

they typically involve abduction by family members & other (apparently) non-life-threatening abductors, and the vast majority of recovery times are over 3 h....”

To put everyone on a fictional “high alert” makes some self-righteous people feel good and a few kids might be saved. But more kids might be saved, and some not even placed in danger, if we devote resources in other ways.

AMBER alerts going off on cell phones in the middle of the night are unlikely to reach people who can do anything at all. The self-righteous can react to this and sneer about inconvenience of disturbed sleep. I more concerned about kids’ safety and our limited resources.

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Comment by pogden297 on April 8, 2021 at 11:32am

Amen.  Many times I've been woken up in the middle of the night with an amber alert regarding an abduction that happened 3 hours away.  What in the heck do they expect me to do about it?  Can't these alerts at least be better targeted?    Do they not realize that these alerts have a "Chicken Little" effect after awhile? 

You're right - almost all abductions are by family members and aren't life threatening.  (Stranger abductions are extremely rare.)  I could see situations where the custodial parent might push legal authorities to issue amber alerts when a child is not returned from visitation on time by the other parent, all for the purpose of getting leverage in court.  Not sure what the criteria are for issuing these reports.  Why would they assume the person who has not returned the child going to do harm to the child?    To issue an Amber Alert, does the non-custodial parent have to have a history of hurting children?  Surely having a criminal record by itself would not be sufficient.

Unfortunately, there are certain issues one cannot raise without getting shouted down.  Example, one thing you can't say out loud is that the law requires too many handicapped parking spaces for many businesses.  I've been at businesses that have maybe 8 handicapped parking spaces with only or two at the most ever being used.  There is no reason to take all those spots away from use by non-handicapped people but trying argue for cutting them back and you're going to get an earful about not caring about the disabled.

One of my favorites is human trafficking.  Actual human trafficking is extremely rare.  So many times law enforcement officials at the outset label things human trafficking because doing so gets publicity (I think state and local law enforcement officials might also get federal dollars to fight human trafficking) but when you follow up, human trafficking charges are almost never filed in those cases They are almost always just cases of boring, old-fashioned prostitution involving adults who have consciously and freely made the decision to trade sex for money.  

You are exactly right, Mark. (Words I've never uttered before.)  But expect to get shouted down with the claim you don't care about the children.

Comment by rodney d johnson on April 8, 2021 at 1:20am

so where would you advocate applying the limited funding for greater actual effect? Also, is there an over-all community awareness that the Amber Alert process creates, that has some intangible value


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