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. Why do people even hold hands, anyway?

    Human Interest

    Nothing lit up the internet this week quite like hand holding, or the lack of it.

    US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump step off Air Force One upon arrival at Rome's Fiumicino Airport on May 23, 2017. AFP PHOTO / Filippo Monteforte.
  2. Kickoff times announced for Florida-Michigan, FSU-Alabama


    College football's blockbuster season openers finally have kickoff times.

  3. Why not Kaepernick?: Ryan Fitzpatrick could be ‘Earl Morrall to Jameis Winston’s Bob Griese’


    As the football world continues to question the Bucs’ motives for signing Ryan Fitzpatrick over Colin Kaepernick as Jameis Winston’s backup, veteran NFL writer Rick Gosselin weighs in with this post titled “The Bucs are playing a mind …

    The Bucs want Ryan Fitzpatrick to mentor Jameis Winston.
  4. Mitch McConnell: Trump presidency 'indistinguishable' from what Bush or Rubio would advocate


    "What the administration is doing, not only am I comfortable with it, but I think the vast majority of Republicans in Congress feel that this is a right-of-center presidency, which is what we had hoped.

  5. 'Modern Family' star Sarah Hyland denies anorexia accusation


    Modern Family star Sarah Hyland says her skinny appearance lately is due to a medical condition.

    Sarah Hyland attends the 2nd Annual InStyle Awards at The Getty Center in Los Angeles in October. Hyland posted on social media May 24, 2017, that her skinny appearance lately is due to a medical condition.