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 email@example.com.