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Dad wishes Amber Alert would help find son

Autumn Harris was supposed to bring her 3-year-old son back home to his father after a one-night visit. Instead, she disappeared.

So Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Thomas Minkoff ordered police this month to pick up the toddler as soon as they could find him.

The judge listed several reasons for worry: The mother has acknowledged a history of mental illness and two suicide attempts. She admitted living previously with young Jaeden in a home without water or electric service. The home's "filthy" conditions were reportedly "not fit for any child or any other human being to inhabit."

So the judge concluded in his April 6 order, "the minor child's physical well-being is in immediate danger."

But not enough immediate danger, apparently, for an Amber Alert, the system that makes sure news of abducted children is broadcast statewide and in some cases nationwide.

Clearwater police contacted the Florida Department of Law Enforcement about the case, fairly sure that it did not meet the strict five-point criteria for an Amber Alert, but wanting to be sure, FDLE spokesman Keith Kameg said. The FDLE confirmed it did not meet the requirements of an Amber Alert case, he said.

One of those criteria is that authorities "must conclude that the child's life is in danger." Police spokeswoman Joelle Castelli said Clearwater did not reach that conclusion about this case.

Another criterion is that "there must be a clear indication of an abduction." But Clearwater considered this "interference with child custody" rather than an abduction, Castelli said.

She explained the difference with an example. If a parent showed up without permission and snatched a child from a home or school, that would be an abduction. But if a parent fails to bring a child back from a lawful visit, that's interference.

Interference is against the law — and Castelli stressed that Clearwater detectives consider this an active criminal investigation. Police are on the lookout for Harris and her mother, Sandra Lawan Harris, who may be with them.

But interference with child custody does not trigger Amber Alerts.

Ryan Johnson said he's grateful for how police are working on the case, but he's dismayed that he can't get an Amber Alert.

"I don't agree with that at all. … If the judge feels that your son is in danger, I think it should automatically trigger an Amber Alert," Johnson said.

He'd like an Amber Alert because it would trigger more publicity and therefore give him more chances of reuniting with his son. He wonders if things would be different if he were more prominent.

"I'm just a regular person, said Johnson, 30, who works at a medical company. "If it was a baseball player or somebody who meant something to the community, I think it would be an Amber Alert."

Jaeden was born in December 2007, and divorce proceedings began 15 months later. Johnson, the father, was the custodial parent when he agreed to let Harris take Jaeden for an overnight visit this March.

They agreed she would return Jaeden at 6 p.m. March 20 at the Clearwater Police Department, according to court records. When she hadn't showed up by 6:15, Johnson worried. At 6:30, "I was starting to freak out." By 7:30, he was making a report with police.

Clearwater detectives obtained information that Harris, her mother and Jaeden may have gone to Orlando.

Johnson said he is concerned that Harris might be violent toward his son — he pointed out that she was twice arrested for domestic battery. However, charges were dropped in both cases.

Johnson pleaded no contest to marijuana possession in 2003 and pleaded no contest to carrying a concealed weapon in 2000.

.Fast facts

Is it an Amber Alert?

These are the five criteria for an Amber Alert, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement:

• The child must be under 18.

• There must be a clear indication of an abduction.

• The law enforcement agency's investigation must conclude that the child's life is in danger.

• There must be a detailed description of child and/or abductor/vehicle to broadcast to the public (photo when available).

• The activation must be recommended by the local law enforcement agency of jurisdiction.

Dad wishes Amber Alert would help find son 04/20/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 20, 2011 10:48pm]
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