By: Lexi Kakis

While the AMBER Alert system has helped reunite many families, it has a heartbreaking origin story.

The Charley Project Map and Meaghan Good

What is an AMBER Alert?

An AMBER Alert is a child abduction alert system that is used to quickly and efficiently notify the public about the abduction of a young person. 

AMBER stands for America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response.

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, AMBER alerts have been responsible for bringing children home safely since the program began in 2003. 

As of January 2, 2023, 1,127 children were successfully recovered through the AMBER Alert system and 131 children were rescued because of these wireless emergency alerts.

While the system has helped many, it has a heartbreaking origin story.

On January 13, 1996, while riding her bike in her hometown of Arlington, Texas, 9-year-old Amber Hagerman was abducted.

What happened to Amber Hagerman?

Amber Hagerman had her whole life ahead of her. 

She was a 9-year-old third grader and attended Berry Elementary School located in Arlington, Texas. She loved to play with Barbies and ride her pink bicycle — it was her favorite color. Amber was given the bicycle for Christmas the month before and absolutely adored everything about it.

Saturday, January 15, 1996 was a comfortable 70 degrees… a perfect day for bike riding.

Amber and her younger brother Ricky were visiting theirgrandparent’s home. They were outside riding their bikes when Amber asked their mom if the pair could ride around the block. Her mom agreed, telling the two to stay close to the house. They agreed, and were off.

Just 1,000 feet away from the house, the siblings found an empty parking lot. Amber was delighted to see a loading ramp that she wanted to ride on. Ricky got nervous about their mother’s rules, and decided to head back, hoping his lead would inspire his sister to follow him home. Amber stayed at the parking lot to ride her bike.

Eight minutes alone was all it took.

A local neighbor suddenly heard a young girl screaming for help. At 3:18 PM, he peered through his chain link fence, and saw Amber getting abducted — her pink bike discarded on the ground with the tires still spinning. 

The neighbor immediately called the police and reported seeing a black pickup truck, possibly a 1980s or 1990s model, take her. The truck had a short wheelbase, he said, with a single cab and a clear rear window. 

Immediately, the community sprang into action. 

Four days later, on January 17, Amber’s body was found. Authorities believe that Amber was kept alive for two days before she was killed. Her autopsy revealed that she died of cut wounds to her neck. Since Amber’s body was found in a creek, there was limited evidence, but some DNA was obtained.

Amber’s killer still hasn’t been caught. 

From this tragedy, President George W. Bush signed the PROTECT Act that outlined a framework for action for the local authorities to follow in the event that a child is abducted.

Donna Norris, mother of Amber Hagerman, sits next to her daughter’s dolls, while at her home in Hurst on January 10, 2006.

How are AMBER Alerts issued?

When authorities confirm a child has been abducted and is believed to be in danger, and if the situation meets the criteria, they can issue an Amber Alert to notify the public. The alert is broadcast on television and radio stations, displayed on highway message boards, and sent through cell phone notifications and social media platforms. The message typically includes a description of the child, any known details about the abductor, and the vehicle used in the abduction. 

The AMBER Alert system aims to obtain as much information as possible from the public to aid in the search for a missing or abducted child. The hope is that a person who sees the alert will recognize the child, the abductor, or the vehicle and provide necessary details for the public. 

The United States Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programming has tasked the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) to manage the AMBER Alert secondary distribution. This means, when an alert is issued by the local investigating agency, NCMEC will step in and help share that information with the necessary contacts. 

Amber Alert Criteria

Today, AMBER Alerts are available in all 50 states, as well as the Navajo Nation, the U.S Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico. According to NCMEC’s 2021 AMBER Alert Data,  here are the current parameters:

  • There is reasonable belief by law enforcement an abduction has occurred.
  • The abduction is of a child age 17 or younger. 
  • The law enforcement agency believes the child is in imminent danger of serious bodily injury or death
  • There is enough descriptive information about the victim and abduction for law enforcement to issue an AMBER Alert to assist in the recovery of the child.
  • The child’s name and other critical data elements, including the Child Abduction flag, have been entered into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database.

If an AMBER alert is issued, local agencies will coordinate together, and if needed can partner with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It’s important to note that while an AMBER alert can be issued in multiple states for the same child, it will never be used on a national basis. 

What are other types of alerts? 

Apart from the well-known AMBER Alerts, there are several other types of missing person alerts that authorities and organizations use to help locate missing individuals. Here are some of the most common ones:

Silver Alerts

Silver Alerts are issued when a person, typically a senior citizen or an individual with a cognitive impairment, goes missing. A silver alert includes information about the individual’s appearance, last known location, and any relevant medical conditions that may require attention. This type of alert is helpful when the missing person is vulnerable and might be unable to find their way home.

Blue Alerts

Blue Alerts are issued when a law enforcement officer is missing, injured, or killed in the line of duty. The alert is intended to provide information about the suspect(s) and any relevant vehicle information that may help locate them. Blue Alerts are relatively new and are only used in 37 states.

Endangered Missing Person Advisory (EMPA)

EMPA is used when a missing person is believed to be in danger due to their age, health, a mental or physical disability, or environment. This alert is similar to a Silver Alert, but applies to all ages who may be at risk. 

Recently, there has been legislation in the works in California to establish specialized missing person alerts for Indigenous people. The Feather Alert aims to combat the crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous People, and can be activated if the missing (a) person is indigenous, (b)the law enforcement agency is utilizing tribal and local resources, (c)the investigating agency can determine whether the individual went missing under unexplainable or suspicious circumstances, and (d) the person is in danger.

Proposed Ebony Alert

The Ebony Alert would be similar to AMBER or Silver alerts, but specifically for missing black women and girls. According to NPR, the Ebony alert system would be used if the missing individual is between 12-25 years old, may have been a victim of trafficking or abduction, their physical safety is endangered, or if the individual suffers from a physical or mental disability.

Love this post? Meet the Author.

Lexi Kakis is the Community Engagement Manager at Uncovered. Lexi studied Media Communications at Molloy University, where she focused on television production and content creation. She has since shifted her focus toward advocating for cold cases. Lexi believes that justice has no expiration.

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