Authorities count hundreds of Amber Alert cases across the country as success stories when they start explaining why the media-friendly and politically popular bulletins are so important.
Yet despite a federal law meant to create a uniform system, an Associated Press review shows wide variations in what triggers an Amber Alert from one state to the next, which can heighten the tension when a suspect crosses state lines.
The AP examined Amber Alert records from all 50 states and found that some barely keep track of the alerts they've issued, let alone whether they worked. A few states don't have anyone designated to oversee their programs.
That poor record-keeping makes it difficult to tell whether investigators have ever missed a chance to safely recover an abducted child because of differences in the state laws and their application.
Twelve states refuse to put out an alert when a parent calls police amid a custody fight, while others see that as a legitimate reason to enlist help from the public. Twelve states issue Amber Alerts for adults with mental or physical disabilities, while other states save their bulletins solely for abducted children.
Among the disparities those different interpretations create: New Jersey has issued just four alerts since 2005, while Michigan — with an only slightly larger population — has issued 100.
All that despite a 5-year-old federal law requiring that every state have a child abduction alert system in place. The law also requires that those systems be uniform to help coordination and that the U.S. Department of Justice appoint someone to get the states on the same page.
Do alerts help find children?
Critics question the basic premise of Amber Alerts — that they help find and save abducted children. Kidnappers who kill children usually do so in the first six hours after they take their victims, experts say. Often it takes nearly that long just to get an alert issued.
A few days after she disappeared in April 2006, 10-year-old Jamie Rose Bolin of Purcell, Okla., was found dead in a neighbor's apartment, the victim of what investigators said was a cannibalistic fantasy. Police did not initially put out an Amber Alert because they suspected she had run away and had no reports of an abduction.
An alert was eventually issued, but police said the girl probably was killed the day she was taken.
"There's nothing wrong with making people feel better in the security of children — it does exactly that," said Jack Levin, a criminology professor at Northeastern University in Boston. "When you're actually talking about preventing homicides, you have to look elsewhere for a solution."
Law enforcement officials insist the alerts can be crucial to recovering endangered children, even when multiple states are involved.
Take the case of Jerry Jones, who killed his infant daughter and his ex-girlfriend's parents and sister in a small north Georgia town before kidnapping the couple's other three kids. Motorists saw an alert on a highway sign and spotted the Ford Explorer driven by Jones, who was caught just across the Tennessee line and given a death sentence earlier this year.
The three children were found safe, and the Levi's Call, as Amber Alerts are known in Georgia, "was the key to the whole thing," said John Bankhead, a spokesman for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
Amber Alerts started in 1996 after the murder of 9-year-old Amber Hagerman, who was kidnapped while riding her bicycle in Arlington, Texas. The city developed a system where police work with broadcasters to put out bulletins on abducted children, similar to severe weather warnings.
Soon, states began creating their own Amber Alert systems, and Congress established its own law in 2003.
The federal law doesn't have any teeth to it, though. It sets basic standards for issuing an alert but doesn't penalize states that don't follow them.
The law set aside $20 million to help establish and shore up state highway alert systems, a token sum that the states — many of which already had programs in place — have been slow to go after. About $4 million remains unclaimed, and 10 states haven't applied for any of that money.
Not that they really need it. Every state has an alert system, and many had them before the federal law was passed. And federal authorities have no intention of asserting control of the state systems, regardless of the law's establishment of a national point person to do just that.
"There will never be a federal Amber czar," said Jeffrey L. Sedgwick, an assistant attorney general at the Justice Department who nevertheless spends part of his time as national coordinator for the Amber Alert network. He's the third person to fill that role since the position was created five years ago.
Weak alliance of states
The loose federal legislation befits a weak alliance of states that pay little attention to their alert programs and sometimes squabble over when to issue the bulletins.
In California, authorities will issue an alert in cases involving a custody dispute. Not so in neighboring Nevada, which claims to have the most stringent criteria in the country for sounding the alarm. Also, California will issue an alert in the case of an abducted adult with a mental or physical disability, while Nevada will not.
"A state that issues alerts more liberally may be miffed when a neighboring state is more conservative and won't do it," said Victor Schulze, senior deputy attorney general in Nevada. "But we're concerned that an overuse of the system will numb people to the emergency characteristic of it."
Schulze said Nevada has turned down a number of requests from neighboring states because of criteria differences, but could not identify a specific case.
California Highway Patrol Lt. LD Maples, who runs the state's Amber Alert system, said he is always worried that it could become overused, but noted that even the smallest bit of information can help the public identify an abducted child.
"If you have information that can be released that can help — if they want to call it liberal let them call it liberal — if it helps, I'm almost compelled to put that information out there," Maples said.
Despite their differences, California has issued 66 alerts since 2005, better than one a month, while Nevada has put out seven, roughly the same rate per capita.
Record-keeping also varies drastically among the states — in Utah, detailed records of each alert that has been issued are available on the Internet, including a narrative of each case, while Mississippi state police have only handwritten files on the three alerts they've issued since 2005. That makes it tough to tell whether an Amber Alert makes a child any more likely to be saved. Advocates, including the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, say it can't hurt.
Sedgwick, whose main job is head of the Office of Justice Programs, acknowledged it's not a perfect system but insisted the program thrives because states are in control rather than simply complying with federal mandates.
"This came from a grass-roots level," he said recently. "So for federal legislators to step in and say, 'Gee, thanks for designing that and now we're going to snatch it from you,' that would not be terribly productive."