Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Amber Alert's record shows it can make a crucial difference

Jane Christmas, left, offers support to Missey Smith at a candlelight vigil outside the Hyatt in downtown Tampa on Tuesday. Both women have experienced the abduction of a child.


Jane Christmas, left, offers support to Missey Smith at a candlelight vigil outside the Hyatt in downtown Tampa on Tuesday. Both women have experienced the abduction of a child.

TAMPA — Since its inception almost a decade ago, Florida's statewide Amber Alert program has saved children in at least 45 missing or abduction cases, a Florida Department of Law Enforcement official said Tuesday.

The results underscore the need for both specialized training and support of the program, law enforcement officials said during the first day of a three-day symposium exploring the programs' strengths and weaknesses.

"If just one child is saved, that's enough for me," said Donna Hodges, an FDLE researcher and training specialist involved in the Florida endeavor. "It has made a difference."

The U.S. Department of Justice is hosting the National Amber Alert Training Symposium at the Hyatt in downtown Tampa, drawing about 350 advocates from all over the world. About 45 family members of abducted children who either returned home safely, remain missing or were murdered joined the gathering.

Ed Smart, whose daughter Elizabeth was taken from her bedroom in Utah in 2002 and found alive nine months later, said that before his daughter's abduction, he had never even heard of the Amber Alert.

The system sends out bulletins on TV, radio, the Internet and highway signs for the public to be on the lookout for a missing child.

"I am a big supporter of the Amber Alert because I believe more children can be saved," Smart said. "And it starts here, in this room. This is the core right here."

Nationwide, leaders have embarked on a campaign to not only get the word out about the Amber Alert system, but to also get law enforcement to change its approach to reports of missing children.

For example, most law officers are trained to expect a worst-case scenario when responding to a burglary call. Yet a missing child alert still carries questions and doubt, and lacks compassion, said Phil Keith, a program manager for training and technical assistance for the U.S. Department of Justice's Amber Alert Initiative.

The first hours are the most critical in abduction cases, Keith said, so it is imperative that investigators move swiftly.

Some countries, like the Netherlands, use sophisticated computer programming to spread alerts to electronic devices such as BlackBerrys and smart phones.

Carlo Schippers of the National Police in the Netherlands said that since launching the program last November, about 200,000 of the country's 16 million people have signed up for the mobile alerts.

"Within half an hour of sending out an Amber Alert, unless you're living under a bridge in a cardboard box that gets bad reception, you should know about it," Schippers said. "Child abduction is a problem that is everywhere. We need to work together and communicate."

In Texas, leaders there credit a network of regional communications for its 100 percent success rate. Since 2002, 42 Amber Alerts have been issued; they have all resulted in happy endings, said Al Lowe, a regional Amber Alert coordinator in Texas.

Similarly, in New York since 2000, children in all 25 Amber Alert cases were reunited with their families.

Florida, meanwhile, has issued 147 Amber Alerts since 2000. Investigators successfully resolved 142 of those cases. Hodges took a closer look at the cases and discovered that in 45 of them, people indicated that the system played a direct role in the child's recovery.

But some Amber Alerts have tragic endings. The symposium, which continues through Thursday, comes weeks after two girls were abducted and killed in two different states.

The group planned a candlelight vigil Tuesday night in memory of Somer Thompson, 7, of Orange Park, and Elizabeth Olten, 9, of Missouri.

Despite the recent deaths, proponents say the program works. Since 1996, 492 missing or abducted children were found alive nationwide as a direct result of the Amber Alert system, officials said.

"One life in and of itself is precious," said California Highway Patrol Capt. L.D. Maples, the state's Amber Alert coordinator. "I don't see how anything that can get information out to the public about a child's abduction isn't good."

Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at (813)909-4613 or

>>Fast facts

Five unresolved cases remain

Since 2000, Florida has issued 147 Amber Alerts. Of those missing children's cases, 142 have been resolved. The five unresolved Amber Alert cases are:

Haleigh Cummings, 5. Haleigh was being watched by her father's girlfriend, who reported her missing from her bed the night of Feb. 10 from Putnam County.

Bryan Dos Santos-Gomez, 1 month old. Bryan was taken from his mother at knifepoint after she got into a car to provide a stranger directions on Dec. 1, 2006, in Fort Myers.

Trenton Duckett, 2. Trenton's mother reported him missing Aug. 27, 2006, after she went to check on him in his bedroom in Leesburg.

Jarkeius Adside, 1. Jarkeius was abducted by three assailants during a home invasion robbery in Miami on Oct. 18, 2001.

Zachary Michael-Cole Bernhardt, 8. Zachary was reported missing from his bed on Sept. 11, 2000, in Clearwater.

Amber Alert's record shows it can make a crucial difference 10/27/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 27, 2009 11:21pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Rick and Tom podcast: How should Joe Maddon be remembered tonight?

    The Heater

    Rick Stroud and Tom Jones talk about Joe Maddon's return to Tropicana Field for the first time since he left the Rays in 2014 in the latest edition of our Rick and Tom podcast. They discuss the mixed emotions …

    Joe Maddon returns to Tropicana Field tonight for the first time since he left the Rays in 2014. [Getty Images]
  2. Watch live: President Trump's speech to the U.N. General Assembly


    UNITED NATIONS — U.S. President Donald Trump and French leader Emmanuel Macron are expected to take the spotlight at the annual gathering of world leaders at the United Nations — but it's the tough global challenges from the nuclear threat in North Korea and the plight of Myanmar's minority Muslims to the …

    President Donald Trump shakes hands with French President Emmanuel Macron during a meeting at the Palace Hotel during the United Nations General Assembly, Monday, Sept. 18, 2017, in New York. [Associated Press]
  3. Police seek suspect in attack on elderly woman in St. Petersburg (w/video)


    ST. PETERSBURG — Police are seeking the public's help in finding a woman they say violently attacked a 69-year-old woman earlier this month.

  4. Photo of the Day for September 19, 2017 - Great Egret with green mating coloration

    Human Interest

    Today's Photo of the Day comes from Barbara Motter of Weeki Wachee, FL.

  5. 20 local museums are offering free admission or deals Saturday for Free Museum Day

    Visual Arts

    For all the community's support of the arts in the bay area, it's nice to be rewarded with free admission once in a while. And that's exactly what many area museums are offering on Saturday.

    The Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg is among the museums participating in the Smithsonian's Museum Day Live, offering free admission. (LANCE ROTHSTEIN   |  Special to the Times)