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Some fear popularity is weakening Amber alerts

The Associated Press

WAITE HILL, Ohio- To illustrate what has happened to the Amber Alert program, Arnold Stanko, police chief in this town of about 450 people, slowly pulls his hands apart as if stretching a piece of taffy.

Ten years after the alerts began being used in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, the system has been adopted in all 50 states. And in some, it is being used for reasons beyond its original purpose of helping find children abducted by strangers.

In Ohio, Texas and other states the program can be used when a child is taken away by a parent or family member who does not have custody, if the child is believed to be in immediate danger of injury or death.

Some law enforcement officials say they are concerned that the alerts will be overused and become less effective. They say that in some cases, it is more difficult for the authorities to decide when an alert should be issued because they have to weed out cases like those in which a parent is not a threat or cases where a child has run away.

"You don''t want to be in a position where you get Amber fatigue where people say, ''It never ends, another Amber Alert,'' and they tune out," said Tela Mange, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Public Safety.

The system was created in 1996 after Amber Hagerman, 9, was kidnapped while riding her bicycle near her home in Arlington, Tex., and killed. The alerts are broadcast on radio and television and appear on cellphones at the owners'' request and on highway signs.

The criteria for issuing an alert vary slightly from state to state, but the Department of Justice recommends the following minimum standards: an abduction is confirmed, the child is at risk of serious injury or death, there is enough descriptive information about the child, captor or captor''s vehicle, and the child is 17 or younger.

"When it started out it was for stranger abductions," said Chief Stanko, who oversees the Northeast Ohio Amber Alert Plan from this Cleveland suburb. "Over time we learned that parents abduct their own children and kill them."

Of 17 alerts issued in northeast Ohio since 2002 through January, 9 involved children abducted by parents, family members or a live-in boyfriend, according to police records reviewed by The Associated Press.

More than 240 children have been recovered nationwide because of Amber Alert programs, and about 95 percent of children reported missing through the system are recovered, according to the National Center for Missing the Exploited Children, a private, nonprofit organization. Of 252 children who were subjects of Amber Alerts in 2004, all were found alive except five who were never located and six who were dead, the center said.

Chief Stanko emphasizes in training classes for police that officers must verify a parent''s accusations about another parent before issuing an alert. But persuading 200 police departments to do that is a challenge, he said.

Law enforcement officers err on the side of caution to protect people in their work, he said, but that cannot be done with Amber Alert.

"If you erred on the side of caution, this thing would be going off all the time," Chief Stanko said.

No Amber Alert was issued the day Gina DeJesus, 14, of Cleveland failed to return home from school in April 2004, because no one witnessed her abduction.

Gina is still missing. The lack of an alert angers her father, Felix DeJesus, who believes the public will listen even if the alerts become routine.

"The Amber Alert should work for any missing child," Mr. DeJesus said. "It doesn''t have to be an abduction. Whether it''s an abduction or a runaway, a child needs to be found. We need to change this law."

Statistic s show the first three hours are the most critical to recovering the child alive, according to the missing children center. But law enforcement officials cannot automatically issue an alert without an investigation, said Robert Hoever, deputy director of special operations at the center.

"It''s a very, very difficult balancing act that these Amber coordinators face," Mr. Hoever said. "Typically, across the country these Amber coordinators are put in a position where they''re damned if they do and they''re damned if they don''t."

Copyright Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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