The parents of a day-old baby who was kidnapped from a hospital in Trois-Rivières on Monday night are praising a group of Facebook users for helping recover the child and apprehend the abductor.
This resolution to a story that is every parent's nightmare shows how the widespread adoption of modern technology has "absolutely" improved the Amber Alert system, according to experts in the field.
"Radio and the television were the best means in the early days, but as technology evolves, and with social media, everybody is connected to their cellphones," says Bob Hoever, director of the missing children division of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in the U.S.
The center played a key role in implementing the Amber Alert system in the U.S., and is now pressing ahead with some key innovations.
For one, while Hoever praises the power of social media connections to help find missing children, he says that one of the most effective tools at the moment is the wireless emergency alert (WEA), which was introduced in 2013 and uses geo-location data.
Under this system, which is not available in Canada, any time an Amber Alert is issued in a given state, the emergency broadcasting network uses cellphone towers to send the alert directly to the phones of anyone within the geographical region at that time.
That means not just people who live in that state, but those passing through it, he says.
The alert sets off a loud, distinctive tone on the phone, accompanied by a text message with information about the abduction.
"So if the state of Virginia had an Amber Alert, we would activate all the cell towers in the state of Virginia," Hoever says. "And whoever drives within range of those cell towers receives that Amber Alert."
'The worst time of our lives'
Baby Victoria was returned to her family late Monday night thanks in large part to three women and a man who went looking for her after seeing a Facebook alert about her abduction from the maternity ward of a hospital in Trois-Rivières, Que.
In a Facebook post on Tuesday, Victoria's mother, Mélissa McMahon, expressed her gratitude to the Facebook users who brought a happy ending to "the worst time of our lives."
Officials say Victoria was abducted around 7 p.m. on Monday. Shortly thereafter, Sûreté du Québec, the provincial police force, issued an Amber Alert looking for a red Toyota Yaris hatchback with a "Bébé à bord" ("Baby on Board") sticker.
The police also posted a photo on social networks of the woman they were seeking.
"We saw [the alert] on Facebook, and decided to go looking for red cars, and we saw the woman. We recognized her," said 20-year-old Mélisane Bergeron. They alerted police, who recovered the baby three hours after issuing the Amber Alert.
This auspicious series of events demonstrates the positive role modern technology has had in widening the scope of Amber alerts, says Hoever.
"The whole purpose of an Amber Alert is to rapidly notify the public by any means, any technology, that the public is paying attention to at any given moment," says Hoever.
The Amber Alert system is named after Amber Hagerman, a nine-year old from Arlington, Tex., who was abducted and murdered in January 1996.
In the aftermath, activists and politicians in the U.S. looked to introduce an alert system for missing children like the one used to warn people about extreme weather. By September 2002, 26 states had established Amber Alert systems.
In December 2002, Alberta became the first province to adopt the Amber Alert system, and now all Canadian provinces and territories have one.
In Canada and the U.S., the Amber Alert system is managed on a provincial or state basis. While there is some nuance between the different jurisdictions, there are some basic guidelines.
According to Sgt. Claude Denis, a spokesperson for Sûreté du Québec, an Amber Alert can only be issued when four criteria are met. They are:
- The missing person must be a child under 18
- The police must have reason to believe that the missing child has been abducted
- The police must have reason to believe that the physical safety of the missing child is at great risk
- Police must have enough information to locate the kidnapping suspect and their vehicle.
Although abduction may have taken place in a specific locale, authorities will broadcast it to a wider audience.
In these cases, "we're trying to blanket the province to generate tips on the location of the child," says Sgt. Steve Montpetit, the Amber Alert coordinator for the Ontario Provincial Police.
"The statistics tell us that if it's the abductor's intent to do harm to that child, you've got a three- to five-hour window" to find them before the child is likely to be harmed, he says.
Amber alerts are typically distributed through commercial, internet and satellite radio channels and over-the-air and cable television stations through the emergency broadcasting system.
In recent years, however, law enforcement agencies have been able to expand the net even further in order to notify the public about an abduction in progress.
For example, in 2009, the OPP introduced WirelessAmber.ca, a program where Ontarians could get Amber alerts via SMS texts on their phones. Citizens interested in receiving these alerts by texts, however, must sign up for the program. In 2010, Ontario added Facebook to its alert list.
The OPP's Amber Alert program has been active on social media, amassing about 185,000 fans on Facebook. Last week, the group launched the Twitter account Amber Alert Ontario (@OPP_Coordinator), which already has over 7,700 followers.
Sgt. Montpetit says he likes Facebook because it has an unlimited character count for descriptions of the alert and gives the OPP the ability to attach multiple photos, both of which increase the chances of finding an abductor.
He says anytime the OPP issues an Amber Alert through social media channels, the number of people who follow that channel increases "dramatically," which only broadens the net the next time a child goes missing.
With its vast social media network, Google has also become a key player in the search for missing children.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has been working with Google in the U.S. to integrate alerts into the search engine and Google Maps.
It is also trying to embed a system where, for a critical period after an alert has been issued, the alert takes the place of paid advertisements on Google.
Google Canada is "currently working to integrate Amber Alerts into Google Canada's public alerts system," a spokesman said.
Both Sgt. Denis and Sgt. Montpetit say that the integration of social media and other new technologies into the Amber Alert program has been extremely valuable.
Sgt. Denis reports that since 2003, his organization has issued 10 Amber alerts using a similar network of outlets. All 10 children were found.