Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old Arlington, Texas, girl and her younger brother spent one afternoon in January 1996 riding their bicycles at an abandoned grocery store parking lot. Only one of the children made it home.
Amber’s body was found days later in a creek bed. Arlington police determined that she had been abducted and killed.
“Her captor and murderer was never found,” said Bob Lowery, the vice president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s missing children division.
After her death, Lowery said, Amber’s family and Arlington police were instrumental in the formation of the Amber Alert system — intended to notify the public any time a child is abducted. They didn’t want the unthinkable to happen to anyone else.
More than two decades after Amber’s death and more than 700 miles away, the system named for her was used in finding a missing Anniston 2-year-old who, authorities said, was abducted July 3 by her father.
The end of the Anniston toddler’s disappearance was a happier one than Amber’s. She was located at a home in Kentucky nearly an hour after an Amber Alert was issued and returned to her mother’s custody.
Shortly after her return, her father was charged with a misdemeanor, but publicly denied knowledge of any wrongdoing when he took her across state lines.
Jay Moseley, who heads the Alabama Fusion Center, which issues out Amber Alerts across the state, said Alabama has been part of that system since the late 1990s. He said about two Amber Alerts are issued per year in Alabama.
According to Moseley, law enforcement agencies are charged with requesting Amber Alerts after a child’s disappearance. Before they’re issued, Moseley said, the situation must meet five criteria:
— Law enforcement must confirm that an abduction has taken place.
— The child must be at risk of serious injury or death.
— Law enforcement must have a sufficient description of the child, their captor or their captor’s vehicle.
— The child must be 17 years old or younger.
— Law enforcement must enter the child’s name and critical data into the FBI’s National Crime Information Center.
Moseley said the Fusion Center typically requires that law enforcement agencies complete the first four steps before contacting the center. Sometimes, he said, there may be circumstances that may delay a child’s information going into the NCIC, the Fusion Center is willing to work with police.
“We’re not going to wait until we have that before we start,” Moseley said. “Sometimes on NCIC, there can be connectivity issues, or the internet’s down or they’re new on the shift. We’ve actually had to walk them through it.”
Moseley said Fusion Center staff are responsible for editing submitted photos of children to make them easy for the public to view, issuing the alerts and posting information about them on social media.
Lowery said the national center’s duties involve sending Amber Alert notifications to smart phones in the region, bulletins to television and radio stations and electronic signs at places like highways, malls and casinos.
The day before the Anniston toddler’s alleged abduction, the child’s mother filed a petition for protection from abuse against the child’s father. Calhoun County Circuit Judge Tom Wright granted the protection order that day and awarded custody to the mother the next day, hours before father and daughter headed out of state.
Wright ordered the Calhoun Sheriff’s Office to issue the Amber Alert around 7 p.m. Moseley said it was the first time he remembered a judge ordering police to pursue an Amber Alert.
Wright declined to comment on the case.
According to Lowery, more than half of the children who become the subject of Amber Alerts are taken by a non-custodial parents and often involve domestic violence between the parents.
“We find children hurt in that scenario far too often because it’s meant to punish the left-behind parent,” Lowery said.
Susan Shipman, who heads 2nd Chance, Inc., which advocates for victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse in the Calhoun County Area, said she has worked with children who have been abducted in domestic violence situations.
Shipman said a child’s reaction to being abducted can vary based on their age and relationship to the abductor, but it can make the child confused and mistrustful of adults afterwards.
“Children kind of inherently trust adults, particularly if they’re their parental units,” Shipman said. “When that trust is destroyed, they may be fearful of adults.”
When a protection order is issued, Shipman said, it’s not uncommon for a judge to grant custody of children to the plaintiff. Until the defendant has been served by law enforcement, they may not know that they have lost custody when they take the child.
However, Shipman said, it’s a bad sign when an alleged abuser takes a child after the order has been served. She said abuse victims and children are typically in the most danger when they are leaving an abusive situation.
“If he is that defiant of a law enforcement document to go and abduct a child, that is pushing the envelope with lethality,” Shipman said.
To his recollection, Moseley said, every child who had been the subject of an Amber Alert in the state has been recovered safely.
“We’re blessed that they’ve been found fairly quickly,” Moseley said.
At a national level, Lowery said, the results of an Amber Alert search typically yield positive results. According to him, 95 to 98 percent of Amber Alerts are resolved within hours and the children are found alive.
“Of course, even one child not found is one too many,” Lowery said.