State lottery joins Amber Alert program
SUMMIT COUNTY – When a 2-week old child was reported missing in Denver earlier this month, alerts went out all over the state. Signs along Interstate 70 informed traffic the suspect was driving a rose-colored minivan and wearing clogs. Authorities found the girl the next day, thanks to a system of cooperation between state departments called Amber Alert.
While the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, local police, broadcasters and the Department of Transportation worked together to find the missing child, the Amber Alert, named after a 9-year-old girl in Texas who was abducted and murdered in 1996, also used its newest member of the team. The Department of Revenue lent its hand in tracking down the latest victim by using sales outlets for the Colorado Lottery. When the infant was abducted, the state’s 2,400 lottery machines printed out tickets with the description of the child and the offender. Those descriptions were then placed in prominent positions inside the respective stores.
“It came up on the lottery terminal, so I printed it out and put them by the cash registers,” said Tom Fisk, manager of the Silverthorne Texaco. “It was a surprise that I saw that. I just told all the cashiers to be on the lookout for messages and notes. But they found the baby the next day, so it wasn’t anything we really needed to worry about.”
The new program was modeled after similar lottery programs all over the country.
“Radio and television have been the driving force behind the Amber Alert program,” said Marilyn Hogan, president and chief executive officer of the Colorado Broadcasters Association, one of the sponsors of the initial Amber Alert bill. “What this does is give one more outlet to pass on the information that someone is missing.”
In the 14 months the program has been running in the state, Colorado’s Amber Alert record for recovering children has been perfect. Nine abductions. Nine returned children. In the United States, every state but Wyoming, Idaho, Nevada, North Carolina, Alaska, Hawaii and Vermont have an alert system in place.
“There’s really not statistics yet to show how successful this program has been around the country,” said Kristina Koellner, supervisor of the intelligence branch of the Colorado Bureau of Investigation’s (CBI) missing child unit. Koellner is one of two people in the state able to give the go-ahead for the Amber Alert. “One thing we’re hoping for is to get this whole program under the Justice Department, because they’d be able to keep track of reports and alerts all over the country.”
The major hurdle for the new program, which attracted national attention last summer when a rash of kidnappings were reported in California and Utah, is cooperation among the different states. For example, if an 18-year-old is kidnapped in Iowa and brought into Colorado, there could be a conflict in deciding to sound the alarm in this state.
“Each state has their own criteria for how the plan works,” Hogan said.
In Colorado, for CBI to activate the Amber Alert system, a child must be 17 years old or younger, in danger of serious bodily harm or death, and there must be enough descriptive information to believe a broadcast will help or assist in recovery. Child custody cases will be ignored by the system, unless the child is in danger or the parent has a history of abuse.
The one custody case that did merit an alarm occurred when a father without custody of his children violated a restraining order by breaking into his ex-wife’s home with a stun gun and taking his three children. Because of information gathered after the Amber Alert, he was later arrested, and the children were recovered unharmed.
Colorado, since its adoption of the bill in April, 2002, has turned away 15 requests for the Amber Alert system because of poor descriptions of the suspects or, in several cases, a history of runaway attempts by the victim. None of the requests came from out of state.
A conference in August might help communication among the programs around the country. Hogan and Koellner are two of four Coloradans heading to Dallas for a brainstorming session among all the states’ Amber Alert teams.
In 2002, 81 cases of child abductions were reported to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. More than 15,000 children were reported missing.
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