New tool to help police find young
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.