A Texas law passed in June aims to improve the AMBER Alert system by giving local law enforcement agencies more control over when and where they can issue alerts.
According to data reported by Texas Monthly, AMBER Alerts are relatively common in the Lone Star State, which issues the most alerts for missing children in the entire country. Last year, out of 181 alerts broadcast across the United States, Texas accounted for 17% of them.
However, government officials and law enforcement have criticized the system for its inefficacy.
Despite the high number of alerts, only a fraction of missing children meet the stringent criteria for issuing an AMBER Alert.
In Texas alone, 34,828 missing children reports were filed last year, with very few alerts to show for them.
John Bischoff, the vice president of the Missing Children Division at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), sees Texas’s high number of AMBER Alerts as a positive sign of good reporting.
Before broadcasting an alert to notify the public of the missing child, local law enforcement must first be called to investigate the disappearance. Once they’ve gathered enough information to share with the public, police contact their state-level Amber Alert coordinator, which in Texas is the Department of Public Safety (DPS).
The DPS then determines if the case meets certain criteria, typically following guidelines issued by the DOJ, such as whether there is a reasonable belief by law enforcement that an abduction has occurred, or if law enforcement believe the child is in imminent danger of serious bodily harm or death.
Other requirements that must be met depend on whether there is sufficient descriptive data about both the victim and the abductor to help assist in the recovery of the child.
According to Bischoff, the AMBER Alert system has helped recover 1,140 missing children since 2005, including 136 through the wireless emergency alert on mobile phones.
However, the AMBER Alert system has faced criticism due to delays in dispatching alerts, leading to potentially life-threatening situations.
A case in point is the abduction of 7-year-old Athena Strand in November 2022. Her mother, Maitlyn Gandy, pleaded for an immediate AMBER Alert but was repeatedly told that the case did not meet the criteria. Tragically, Athena’s body was found 48 hours later. Gandy firmly believes that an early AMBER Alert could have made a difference.
Studies have also indicated that the AMBER Alert system is often ineffective, particularly in cases of stranger abductions. Additionally, there is a significant disparity in the system’s effectiveness among different racial groups, with alerts being more successful for white and Hispanic children than for Black children.
To address these issues and improve the AMBER Alert system, a new law known as Athena’s Law went into effect in June.
This law, authored by Texas State Representative Lynn Stucky, grants local police greater control over when to issue AMBER Alerts, allowing them to bypass certain criteria if they believe there is enough reason to do so.
It also empowers the chief law enforcement officer in a municipality to broadcast alerts within a 100-mile range of where a child has gone missing, as well as in neighboring counties.
Officials say the localized alerts will help expedite the response and improve the chances of recovering missing children.
While the new law may result in more frequent alerts for Texans, they will be far more localized, potentially making a significant difference in response times and outcomes.
“Ultimately, I believe Texans will take greater notice of the regional alert because they’re closer to where the child is likely to be found,” Stucky explained.
The change is expected to be particularly valuable in cases of parental abductions, which constitute the majority of missing children’s cases.