New tool to help police find young

Marlborough Express - - NEWS - KATIE KENNY

A dig­i­tal tool rev­o­lu­tion­is­ing searches for miss­ing chil­dren is com­ing to New Zealand.

AMBER Alerts started more than 20 years ago fol­low­ing the death of 9-year-old Amber Hager­man, in Texas, in the United States. In 2015, the alert sys­tem joined forces with so­cial net­work­ing web­site Face­book to am­plify its reach.

New Zealand yes­ter­day be­came the 14th coun­try to use the tool.

Police will ac­ti­vate an AMBER Alert, in­clud­ing pho­to­graphs and other de­tails, if they be­lieve a miss­ing mi­nor is at se­ri­ous risk of harm.

Af­ter the alert is ac­ti­vated, mem­bers of the pub­lic who are part of the Face­book com­mu­nity in the tar­geted search area will re­ceive a no­ti­fi­ca­tion at the top of their news feed. They can then share the alert with their Face­book con­tacts to help spread the word.

At the launch in Welling­ton, Police Com­mis­sioner Mike Bush said the alert sys­tem will be a valu­able new tool for police.

‘‘There have only been a very small num­ber of ab­duc­tions in­volv­ing chil­dren in New Zealand’s history, but other sit­u­a­tions, such as where a young child goes miss­ing from home and is at se­ri­ous risk of harm, oc­cur more reg­u­larly,’’ he said.

‘‘When these sorts of in­ci­dents do hap­pen, police [take] them very se­ri­ously and will con­sider ev­ery op­tion avail­able to us to lo­cate a child we have ex­treme con­cerns for.’’

Emily Vacher, a di­rec­tor with Face­book’s trust and safety team, trav­elled to Welling­ton for the event.

She said her back­ground of more than a decade with the FBI as an agent spe­cial­is­ing in crimes against chil­dren had helped shape the alert sys­tem.

‘‘When I came to Face­book in 2011, I re­alised pretty quickly that it’s in a unique po­si­tion be­cause so many peo­ple use it, and use it on their phones.’’

Al­most 3 mil­lion Ki­wis use Face­book, she said.

‘‘In miss­ing chil­dren cases, time is crit­i­cal. The longer a child is miss­ing the worse the out­come tends to be. In the United States, most miss­ing kids are found within three hours. So we want to get these alerts out in min­utes.’’

But peo­ple shouldn’t ex­pect to see alerts all the time, Vacher added.

‘‘It’s qual­ity over quan­tity. There needs to be in­for­ma­tion law en­force­ment can share with the pub­lic, so it’s a call to ac­tion. And there needs to be rea­son­able be­lief the child is in dan­ger. We don’t want peo­ple to cease pay­ing at­ten­tion to these alerts. If you see one, it means you could be in a po­si­tion to help.’’

Robyn Jensen, whose 14-yearold daugh­ter Kirsa Jensen went miss­ing on Septem­ber 1, 1983, said her story could have been dif­fer­ent if a tool such as AMBER Alerts had ex­isted then. The 72-year-old hasn’t seen her daugh­ter since she went miss­ing while rid­ing her horse along a Napier beach.

The mother said she didn’t hes­i­tate to help pro­mote AMBER Alerts, which she de­scribed as an ‘‘amaz­ing in­no­va­tion’’.

‘‘What I said at the time is that I want to help any other par­ent from go­ing through what I have en­dured.

‘‘To lose a child is dev­as­tat­ing but what makes it ex­traor­di­nar­ily hard is just not know­ing what has hap­pened. I re­main locked into that mo­ment in time when Kirsa went miss­ing.’’

Ur­gent Alerts were a fea­ture Neigh­bourly launched in 2014.

‘‘They have al­ways al­lowed mem­bers to send ei­ther a text mes­sage or email to neigh­bours,’’ a spokes­woman said. ‘‘This fea­ture has also al­ways been ex­tended to or­gan­i­sa­tions to use. They have been used to help lo­cate miss­ing peo­ple in the com­mu­nity on more than one oc­ca­sion since the site launched.’’

The mother of miss­ing teenager Kirsa Jensen says a tool such as AMBER Alerts could have helped the search for her daugh­ter.

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