Alerts on Missing Children

One of the most successful voluntary programs aimed at saving children is the Amber Alert system, in which police and local broadcasters issue "abduction bulletins" when a child is missing. (AMBER stands for America's Missing Broadcast Emergency Response.)

The system has helped recover 31 children over the past six years, showing how communities can become galvanized by such emergencies. Now efforts are under way to turn these patchwork partnerships between broadcasters and state agencies into a seamless national network. One reason is a perception that child abductions are increasing.

Without lessening the serious nature of child abductions, the Justice Department points out that what it calls "serious child abductions" in fact did not increase last year. Justice says some 58,200 children were forcibly detained for short periods of time, with 99 percent returned safely. Most were not abductions by strangers.

Nonetheless, the Senate has approved a bill to nationalize the system, with the House yet to act. Last week, President Bush said he will put $10 million into Amber Alert training and equipment. Further, Internet provider American Online plans to transmit the alerts to its members.

There's a risk that a public facing many such alerts will start to ignore them. Criteria for issuing them will have to be judicious to help avoid "cry wolf" apathy. But an alert system that saves lives and isn't ignored deserves a few years to test its usefulness.

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