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Revisiting 'Amber Alert' Guidelines

by Indy, published

It now appears that Sandra Cantu, the 8-year-old who was last seen wearing a "Hello, Kitty" shirt, didn't die at the hands of the clichéd shadowy stranger.

Instead, the person accused of killing the Tracy girl is the statistical abduction probability: 60 percent of the time when someone other than a family member kidnaps a child, it's someone the child is at least acquainted with.

A young mother whose 5-year-old was a playmate of Sandra's, who lived just five doors from the Cantu home, is accused of killing Sandra. CBS News is reporting that police believe Sandra was killed in a church just miles from that home, the church where 28-year-old Melissa Huckaby taught Sunday school.

Shortly after Sandra disappeared March 27, police weren't sure what to make of the case. They explored theories from runaway to kidnapping.

"Until we had an indication that Sandra had been killed, we were treating this as a missing persons case," Tracy police spokesman Sgt. Tony Sheneman told The Associated Press shortly after Sandra's body was found April 6 in a suitcase in an irrigation pond.

Despite Sandra's age, it was never treated officially as an abduction, which means an Amber Alert was never issued. It might not have mattered in Sandra's case if she was killed before she was even reported missing, as CBS News is reporting.

But it could in other cases, and that's why California's Amber Alert guidelines must be revisited.

According the California Highway Patrol Web site, four criteria must be met before an Amber Alert can be issued:

  • The police confirm an abduction has occurred.
  • The victim is 17 or younger or has a proven mental or physical disability.
  • The victim is in imminent danger of serious injury or death.
  • There is information available that, if provided to the public, help find the child.

Those guidelines are based on recommendations from the U.S. Department of Justice, and they're suggestions many states follow:

  • There is reasonable belief by law enforcement that an abduction has
    occurred.
  • The law enforcement agency believes that the child is in imminent danger of
    serious bodily injury or death.
  • There is enough descriptive information about the victim and the abduction
    for law enforcement.
  • The child is 17 or younger.
  • The child's name and other critical data elements have been entered into the National Crime Information
    Center system.

Here's the problem in the Cantu case that could crop up in others: Both the California and the federal guidelines require an abduction, though the federal guidelines allow more leeway than the state rules by allowing "reasonable suspicion" by the police rather than confirmation.

In the case of an 8-year-old who disappears, one would think kidnapping would be the immediate and reasonable suspicion.

There is, of course, a danger of the public zoning out if Amber Alerts are overused. Early on, whether to use them at all in family abductions was controversial, though increasingly officials are erring on the side of caution. In fact, two of the six Amber Alert cases CHP sites for this year involve parental abductions.

It is possible, though, to broaden Amber Alert guidelines without putting police in the position of issuing one every time estranged partners get into a flap.

Tennessee manages to do it, for example, by requiring only "a belief that the child is in imminent danger of bodily injury or death." One of the five reasons to establish that belief is that "the missing child is believed to be out of the zone of safety for his or her age and development stage."

That sounds like a reasonable guideline that the CHP should establish. And if CHP doesn't do it, the Legislature should steer law enforcement in that direction.

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