AMBER ALER…Aww, Never Mind

This note comes to us from Reilly Capps, who was a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow.

Hi Free-Range Kids: It’s Reilly, I wrote you about crazy drop-off procedures at my niece’s school. 

This is about the new ability of Amber Alerts to come to your phone, which you’ve talked about before. It’s disconcerting, and in some cases, unnecessary.

Thursday night around 9:45 p.m., the cell phones of thousands of Coloradans blared a warning sound. It was louder and more insistent than a normal ringtone — more like the sound of the “test of the emergency broadcast system” on TV.


The pop-up informed us that there was an Amber Alert about a baby abducted in Oklahoma, being driven somewhere in a Hyundai Santa Fe — possibly through Colorado. This was disturbing news. Many of us searched out details in the case, and they seemed awful: a 5-month-old baby had been kidnapped by a mentally disturbed woman who had talked about the child dying.

“How awful,” we thought, as we hit the “dismiss” button on the warning. Two more times, the phone blared with the same information. Two more times, the conversation we were having was derailed from normal topics — a sister’s engagement, an uncle’s retirement — toward the topic of kidnapped babies. “What a sad world,” we thought.

But here’s the thing: like some portion of all Amber Alerts, this one turned out to be absolutely nothing.

Cops found the baby in Texas. Most news stories tended to talk about how this baby was “recovered” “safe” and the “suspects were apprehended.” Which makes it sound like murderous mad women are dashing around stealing babies, and constant vigilance is the only thing saving their lives. The TV, radio and Internet have long told us these kinds of stories. Now our blaring phones are telling us so.


But, according to more thorough follow-up news reports (which were contradictoryconfusing and which, of course, did not get anything close to the level of attention of the blaring cell phone warning), the baby wasn’t in any danger, ever. She wasn’t kidnapped. She was just in the midst of a broken chain of uncertain custody. It’s convoluted: the baby’s mom is in prison, and the baby was being taken from her grandma in Oklahoma to her ex-stepmom in Texas by her grandma’s sisters-in-law.

It’s not clear, from the news stories, why anyone thought the baby might be in Colorado, or who the “mentally disturbed” person supposedly was.

In fact, here’s the possibly saddest part of the story: apparently, NOBODY has taken legal custody of the baby since mom went to jail. So perhaps, technically, anybody who has this baby is committing some infraction.

This wasn’t a terrifying crisis. It was, like so much more of life, just a royal mess.

Kidnappings happen, and they’re terrible, and if an alert system can help recover kids, and it has, then great. But how many people, over how many states, need to panic? And how often?

And, for us panickers, how about a follow-up text? Why didn’t whoever buzzed our phones the first time send a soothing tone with the message “The Amber Alert baby from yesterday was never in any danger, never close to you, and there was no madwoman. Kidnappings are rare. Crime is declining overall. This kid — and most kids — are alright.”

Lenore here: Amen. 


Are we over-alerted?

, , , , ,

40 Responses to AMBER ALER…Aww, Never Mind

  1. Dirk July 22, 2014 at 11:29 am #

    Forget about Amber Alert nonsense. This is the article you should be reading right now!

  2. Jill July 22, 2014 at 12:10 pm #

    Because we’re now on the level of lab rats, who have to be kept hyper-alert for danger at all times, so we can be easily manipulated through fear.
    Sorry, but that’s how I see it. I’m not in favor of children being kidnapped, but ninety percent of the time, nobody’s been kidnapped; it’s just a custody dispute or a misunderstanding, or some such nonsense.
    And while we’re on the subject, why isn’t there a big ole blaring alarm going off on our phones when a senior citizen is reported driving around, lost somewhere? Sure, Silver Alert signs are lit up on highways when that happens, but how come our phones aren’t blowing up with the news that grandpa is out there somewhere, driving around in his 1998 Camry with no clue how to get home? Aren’t old people important? Or is it just the idea of children being “missing” that matters to us?

  3. Jill July 22, 2014 at 12:18 pm #

    Thanks, Dirk! My parents would have LIVED in jail, the way they let me go off on my bike by myself for hours at a time. The worst thing that ever happened was a lady caught me and my friend Patty throwing mud balls at her garage and threatened to tell our mothers.
    If that happened today, she’d probably call the police, and Patty and I would be sent to juvie, where things would not go well for us.

  4. MichaelF July 22, 2014 at 12:21 pm #

    It just ends up with Alarm Fatigue, whenever the alarm starts turning out more false then true eventually it will be immediately dismissed. Much like this guy writes about.

    It’s still about Fear, look at how many times in the first few years of use we heard about the color of the Terror Attack scale. Or whatever it was. Now, who even hears about Orange or Blue alerts? People tend to dismiss things after awhile, it’s only the interested few who keep it going.

  5. Thea July 22, 2014 at 12:21 pm #

    I’m so frustrated by the amber alerts that make the rounds on facebook. Besides never knowing if the alert is still active, you never know the details. And of course there is always the tag of, “if it was your child wouldn’t you wish people would share/repost it”. So, add a guilt trip to it. Gah. Stop it. Between our phones, tv and highway signs everyone knows. Somehow children were found before the advent of facebook.

  6. Amber July 22, 2014 at 12:22 pm #

    We were visiting Denver and also got this alert. The notification over-rode the silent setting on my phone, which had never happened before, even for the notification 2 weeks earlier that a tornado was on a direct path for our home town. What?!?

  7. Judy July 22, 2014 at 12:56 pm #

    I know, these are awful that they by default override the silent setting on your phone. What good is it, even if the kid is actually in trouble, to wake me up from a sound sleep at 2 AM in the morning for an Amber Alert? I’m not about to go hop on the freeways to look for the missing kid who may be somewhere in the county, so what good did it do other than ruin my nights sleep? It just winds up being a nuisance.

    And honestly, I actually had some people give me flack for turning off the Amber Alerts after I got woken up. There are enough signs on the freeways that I’ll know of the alert if I’m out and about. I wouldn’t mind so much if it was just a low key text or something, but that blaring default alarm sound (non-configurable) is horrible. Thank goodness the Amber and Emergency Alerts have different settings on my phone.

  8. John July 22, 2014 at 1:18 pm #

    Good find Dirk! I’ve bookmarked that article!

  9. EricS July 22, 2014 at 1:18 pm #

    Glad to hear that this was just a miscommunication. But still doesn’t change the fact that people were too quick to jump on the “finger pointing train”. It’s a fact that when people react first, before thinking, things tend to get confused, and crap tends to hit the fan more often, and more widespread.

    But even if the child were “kidnapped”, it still proves that kidnappings are NOT usually done by “strangers”. It’s most often committed by people already known to the child.

    Perhaps if we start with educating people to stop believing in “stranger danger” first, then perhaps their attitude would change into a more positive view point.

  10. Donna July 22, 2014 at 1:19 pm #

    I’m not sure why people here are so dismissive of custodial abductions. Those kids can be in as much, or even more, danger than kids abducted by strangers.

    That said, I have turned my Amber Alert off on my phone. Unless you are traveling right next to the car from the Amber Alert (in which case, why are you looking at your phone and not the road?), the alert will be meaningless to you. Nobody is really going to spend the rest of their day reading the license plate of every red honda civic they pass just in case.

    So basically, it is much ado for limit results. We will all do exactly what this writer did – look at our phone, say “how awful” and move on with our day. But the more of these we get (and I was getting a couple a week sometimes when my alert was on), the more of a cumulative impact they make.

  11. EricS July 22, 2014 at 2:16 pm #

    @Dirk: IMO, one of the reasons why more and more people are being “unneighbourly” is because they don’t want to get sued. So they stay out of people’s businesses. So when less and less people care for the community, and more about their own wants, their minds had to shift to a different way of thinking. Hence the growing number of “busy bodies”, “know-it-alls”, and “sanctimonious attitudes”. Speaking to be heard, before thinking of the bigger picture. They fail to realize their actions have long term consequences. And usually never good, both for the parents, and the child(ren). In trying to “help” the children, they only put them in a bad position.

    The article is right, religion and family should stay within the communities, and away from State. Only the extremes should be addressed by the State. Everything else, leave it to the community to work it out themselves. And there should be consequences for hyper vigilant claims. It’s against the law to make a false 911 call. Why can’t we apply that to illegitimate claims as well. Apart from being mostly detrimental to the children, these claims are also a drain in resources, and tax payers money. I’m most certain, people will stop putting their noses in other people’s business for the wrong reasons.

    And make no mistake, authorities are people too. Influenced by media, and trends just like everyone else. Authorities, make bad calls as well. Sadly their “best interest in children”, are really only “what THEY think is best for the children”. And not what is actually BEST for the children.

  12. EricS July 22, 2014 at 2:28 pm #

    @Donna: “But the more of these we get (and I was getting a couple a week sometimes when my alert was on), the more of a cumulative impact they make.”

    Where the alerts legitimate, or false calls as well? And would you consider “cumulative impact” a good thing, or a bad thing? I’m taking it as something negative. Just like the cumulative impact of media and social media over the last decade. It is, after all, how society has veered it’s way to the “new” way of parenting we see today.

  13. Amanda Matthews July 22, 2014 at 3:24 pm #

    “I’m not sure why people here are so dismissive of custodial abductions. Those kids can be in as much, or even more, danger than kids abducted by strangers.”

    Because in EVERY SINGLE Amber Alert I’ve seen for custodial “abductions”, the child was NOT in any danger.

    I don’t doubt that there are SOME situations where a child is in danger from custodial abductions. But we need a different kind of alert to separate “Dad overslept on his day to bring a kid back to mom and isn’t answering his cellphone” vs “Mom has a restraining order on her, is off her meds and picked up the kids at the park without dad knowing.” And we need punishments for saying a kid was kidnapped when it was really just an argument or bitterness between the adults.

  14. Dirk July 22, 2014 at 3:39 pm #

    Is this a west coast thing? Because I have never seen an amber alert. Or anything of the sort…

  15. Janice July 22, 2014 at 3:39 pm #

    I have disabled this function on my phone. First one I ever got was while I was on vacation. I think its a dumb idea to push this type of information to cell phones….just because we can doesn’t mean we should. Its bad enough living in CO and every single National Weather Service notice ALSO blares out in the same manner (had to disable this feature as well because, yeah the wind is blowing and its winter…when does that NOT happen in CO). I only want my phone to go off like that when a tornado is near me. It does make sense for Amber Alerts to be posted on road signs to be on the look out for a certain car while I’m traveling, but if I’m at home not planning to go anywhere, what does pushing this kind of information out do for me other than give me a heart attack because I have no control over the volume and tone of the alert?

  16. kate July 22, 2014 at 3:39 pm #

    My favorite line in the story: “The worst that ever happened to me was that I got punched in the head by a junkie. The worst that ever happened to me was that I got punched in the head by a junkie. (I) got over it, having learned the valuable lesson that I could take a punch in the head.” Having grown up with the freedom of wandering the streets, the author is able to take such an incident in stride and move on. Today, that child would not be allowed to view the police files as it might be too upsetting. The school would offer counseling he might never get over this incident.

  17. Dirk July 22, 2014 at 3:45 pm #

    Yeah, it looks like a majority of these things are being declared in California. I only looked 3 or 4 pages deep though…

  18. Bob Cavanaugh July 22, 2014 at 3:48 pm #

    This article reminds me of a few different situations.
    1. The first was kind of odd, I don’t remember about how long ago this was, but there was a mention of an Amber Alert out of Central Washington on many of the traffic reports one evening, but no other mention.
    2. Last summer there was one that went up the entire west coast for a 16-year-old out of San Diego that lasted a couple days, before she was rescued in Idaho. Oddly in this case, I didn’t get an alert. If I did, I only got 1, not a repeated warning, but that has been a problem in this state. I do think that the only warnings that should be able to override your silent settings are those that put you in danger right away. A tornado warning yes, but not an Amber Alert. Why do so many people keep their phones on all night? Before I go to bed, my phone goes off.
    3. A couple summers ago, I was in Spokane and heard about an Amber Alert on the local TV station. Turns out it was out of Longview, and it was believed that the endangered child was headed for Oregon, so why is the EAS going off on a TV station in Spokane?

  19. Amanda Matthews July 22, 2014 at 4:04 pm #

    “Why do so many people keep their phones on all night?”

    So that they can be contacted in the event of an emergency during the night (Amber Alerts don’t count). And for the alarm – many people don’t bother to have a clock nowadays. And there’s also the fact that a lot of people start to automatically turn off the alarm on a clock without actually waking up – with a phone, the method to turn off the alarm can be varied, forcing you to actually wake up first.

  20. Donna July 22, 2014 at 4:42 pm #

    “Where the alerts legitimate, or false calls as well?”

    I think either going out over cell phone are bad. There is very limited use for Amber Alerts on a cell phone. Unless you are on the roads (in which case, you should not be looking at your phone), you are not going to be able to help. Do you really need to know about every missing kid in the area or who may be traveling through?

    “And would you consider “cumulative impact” a good thing, or a bad thing?”

    A bad thing. Constant amber alerts give credence to the belief that kids are flying off the streets at an alarming rate. The vast majority of them relate to known abductors. That doesn’t mean that the child at issue is not in legitimate danger, but the situations have no bearing on the overall safety of children.

  21. BL July 22, 2014 at 4:44 pm #

    Amber Alerts should come with trigger warnings.


  22. Donna July 22, 2014 at 4:54 pm #

    “But we need a different kind of alert to separate ‘Dad overslept on his day to bring a kid back to mom and isn’t answering his cellphone'”

    I really don’t believe that you have seen a single amber alert that involved a father who simply overslept returning the child.

    Yes, in this case, the child ended up being fine. But this was absolutely not a bogus amber alert. As I understand it, the police were told that the child was kidnapped by the mentally ill woman. That whole story was a lie to distract the police in order to move the baby to Texas, but that doesn’t mean that the police were wrong for issuing an amber alert based on facts that they believe to be true at the time that would certainly give rise to a legitimate amber alert. Hopefully, the people who lied will be charged.

  23. Amanda Matthews July 22, 2014 at 5:24 pm #

    Welp, I really don’t believe a lot of the things you say, so I guess we’re even.

  24. Rachel @ Wife, Then Mama July 22, 2014 at 5:45 pm #

    I keep my phone on all night because I don’t have a house phone. If I had a land line I would turn off my phone, but I want my friends and family to be able to contact me if they need help. It also functions of my alarm, but if I had a land line, I would buy an alarm clock.

  25. Bob Davis July 22, 2014 at 6:01 pm #

    We’ve had “Amber Alerts” for several years here in California. Other states, especially those that are thinly populated, may not have the freeway message boards that are used to send the alerts. That said, I wonder how many “Amber Alerts” have actually resulted in a child being recovered because a driver spotted the license plate in the alert and notified the Highway Patrol or other law enforcement agency.
    Regarding cell phones being left on at night–in our household, cell phones are usually turned on only when we go somewhere, since our main phone number is on the “land line” phone (we are “old school” in a number of ways). But many folks depend on a cell phone or other wireless device for all their communication needs.

  26. Andy July 22, 2014 at 6:10 pm #

    “Why do so many people keep their phones on all night?”

    1.) So I do not have to remember in the morning to turn it on. Chances are it would be turned off till lunch.

    2.) So I know what time it is in the morning or if I wake up during the night.

    3.) So I can read (or browse) if I will have trouble to asleep. I do all my readings on cell phone.

    4.) Because there is no reason to turn it off, really. My friends and my relatives tend to call during the day.

    What is your reason to turn it off for the night?

  27. Andy July 22, 2014 at 6:13 pm #

    @Rachel @ Wife, Then Mama Most smartphones alarm will buzz even if the phone is turned off. You would have to remove the battery to prevent it buzzing.

  28. hancock July 22, 2014 at 7:50 pm #

    I thankfully don’t get Amber Alerts on my phone, but they kept coming through my FB news feed because friends were sharing them. It has become my unofficial crusade to warn against excessive sharing of amber alerts and missing persons reports, even un-friending people that post more then two a week.

    I advise my friends to check the dates and do their research before sharing. Is it pertainent to your area? Is it up to date? Is it a custody dispute? (Yes, this should be considered because it is the most common abduction and generally results in swift retrieval with no harm done) If no to the first or second, then don’t share it. It’s crying wolf. If it’s the third, only share it if the danger to the child is specified.

    It has greatly cleaned up my news feed, yet I still have lots of contacts.

  29. Mike in Virginia July 22, 2014 at 9:49 pm #

    Amber Alerts are just like sex offender registries. It seems like a good idea, and have actually done some good. But if a little but of a good thing is good, then a lot more of it must be better, right? I mean, actual convicted rapists and child molesters have a high rate of recidivism, so its probably a good idea to keep tabs on these people, but we’ve all been reading the stories about how out of control the registries have become. Anyone checking the registry map will see dots all over their own neighborhoods, reinforcing the idea that we are all surrounded by potential child molesters. Its the same with Amber alerts, that we all see every day, making it seem like children are constantly being kidnapped. The police say the Amber Alerts work, and that the quicker they can get the alert out, the higher the likelihood of finding the child. Which, of course, means sending out the alert before all of the facts are in, then having to cancel the alert. Better safe than sorry, they say. But my response is, have they never heard of the little boy who cried wolf?

  30. Bob Cavanaugh July 22, 2014 at 10:04 pm #

    @Donna you may remember the case from San Diego last summer as it made the national news. If I remember the details right, someone known to the family (I forget how) set the house on fire then took the girl, who was really creeped out by him because he said he was in love with her. This was the only one I think I got an alert on my phone about, and I think it was only once. I never heard the resolution to the other two I mentioned, since they weren’t local to my area at the time. I do know that a lot of the alerts I’ve heard about do involve some sort of custody disbute. I don’t mind keeping them on on my phone since they don’t come through that often. I think I’ve only gotten maybe half a dozen in the over 2 years I’ve had a smartphone. As for turning my phone off at night, if I need an alarm I usually set the one on my clock radio. I have left my phone on all night several times for the alarm, but usually I don’t have a reason to have it on since if anyone wants to contact me they’ll usually do it during the day. As for the alerts on Facebook I’m glad I don’t have that problem, likely since the majority of my friends are under 30.

  31. no rest for the weary July 23, 2014 at 2:55 am #

    “I’m not sure why people here are so dismissive of custodial abductions. Those kids can be in as much, or even more, danger than kids abducted by strangers.”

    Hm, well, I guess if the cultural expectation is that we all significantly alter the way we live our lives and the way we support our children’s growth and development in order to prevent “abductions by strangers” because “there are so many more crazies out there than ever before,” yeah, I’m going to be somewhat dismissive of custodial abductions being passed off as events that I ought to take into account when deciding what is safe for my own kids.

    Because someone else’s custody dispute has absolutely nothing to do with my, or any other kid’s safety.

  32. Meg July 23, 2014 at 8:55 am #

    I think it’s important to remember that police are human, just like the rest of us, and are going to make mistakes sometimes. This isn’t an egregious error of judgment on the order of arresting someone for letting her kid play in the park alone; this was a misunderstanding of the facts of a situation that resulted in the great horror of…some extra text messages being sent out.

  33. Donna July 23, 2014 at 9:10 am #

    no rest –

    The point of Amber Alerts is not to make you fear for your family’s safety (although I think it is an unintended outcome). It is to look out for the children that are missing.

    We constantly say here that children are far, far more likely to be harmed by someone they know than a stranger. That is a true statement. But mention amber alerts and the attitude expressed here is generally that they are wrongfully issued in custodial cases because “she’s with her dad so this must be a situation of mom trying to get back at a spouse who overslept visitation,” totally disregarding the tenet that children are far more likely to be harmed by someone they know.

  34. Beth July 23, 2014 at 9:12 am #

    In Wisconsin, the Amber Alert criteria states, in part “Amber Alert is not to be used for runaways or family abductions unless the child’s life is in danger.”

    I work for the agency that processes these for the entire state, and I can tell you that the criteria is strictly applied. We have refused to enter Amber Alerts for police agencies because of this criteria.

    So at least in one state, there will not be Amber Alerts when Dad overslept on his day to return the kids.

  35. K2 July 23, 2014 at 9:51 am #

    The amber alert system is overused, and loses some of its effectiveness in the process. If it’s used that much people will eventually turn their ringers off. It wasn’t really designed for the custody battles. Like the sex registry and other aspects of government there is no one who is allowed to think about whether it is appropriate or whether or whethert it clogs the system and makes it a lot less effective. Apx. 90% of the kids in foster did not suffer physical or sexual abuse in their homes and it is really questionable as to whether they belong in foster care. Sex offender registries are also clogged, making them all but useless. Government has blanket ways of thinking for many areas and when decisions are made I find I often disagree.

  36. Matthew Fulton July 23, 2014 at 10:32 am #

    There is a discrepancies with the vehicle in this story. The alert describes a Hyundai Santa Fe and the follow up news reports say it was a Nissan Murano. That’s a big difference when it come to an “abduction”.
    On a side note in Florida where I live an alert was sent out via the emergency broadcast system in Flagler County because a teenager got in a fight with his parents and left the house for a few hours. Somehow that turns into an emergency that everyone needs to know about. A few hours passed and the kid went home. Shocking.

  37. Warren July 23, 2014 at 11:21 am #

    Like car alarms going off in parking lots, Amber Alerts are ignored just the same.

    Remember the good old days, when a kid was not accounted for, family and friends would scout out all of the areas that the kid would most likely be found, before even thinking of calling 911?

    Or when the parent would be pissed that their child was late, absent or whatever, instead of instant panic?

  38. dancing on thin ice July 23, 2014 at 12:02 pm #

    Runaways are nothing new. I’ve heard several stories about teenagers in the 1600s and 1700s traveling to America without telling their parents. Not to open a political can of worms, but current news has stories of children still seeking a better life.
    Amber Alerts wouldn’t have been very effective back then if they relied upon a town crier to get the news out. And it would have to be shouted out in every town and over 2 continents.

  39. Lance Mitaro July 24, 2014 at 1:12 am #

    And how many times have we all been in Walmart or similar store when we heard “Code Adam” only for it to be “Cancel Code Adam” 20 seconds later?

    Do we really need all this reactionary, knee-jerk fear-based “safeguards” in place to protect children? NO.

    Funny how children were perfectly fine and we not less vulnerable before we even had an Online registry and Amber Alerts. Exploiting and over-selling unwarranted fear seems to be normalized in America because of ignorance and hysteria over catastrophizing.

  40. Reilly Capps July 30, 2014 at 6:04 am #

    Thanks for the feedback.

    Did someone say that you can turn these alerts off? I’d like to know how. I’m not trying to be an old crank, but it irks me that some government agency can unilaterally decide to make my phone blare at me at 10 p.m. while I’m mid-conversation. At least with the radio or TV I’m deciding to be blared at.

    Also: Amber Alerts are pretty much not useful.

    “Amber Alerts – for all their urgency and drama – actually accomplish little,” says this article … … citing an academic study. The alerts mostly work when it’s an acquaintance that has the kid. “In those rare instances where kidnappers did intend to rape or kill the child, Amber Alerts usually failed to save lives.”

    I think that those Facebook posts Thea talked about might be one of the more insidious parts of this: the posters guilt you into re-posting the warnings. (I never do, but people I like do.) And they make you feel like you’re degenerate if you don’t take an interest, like you don’t care about kids. I read about this all the time on Free Range Kids — adults who are just doing what they feel is right for their kids — like letting them play outside — and then they get scorn from all the worriers moaning “what might have happened!” And you feel ashamed.

    Here’s another quote from that article:

    “If an Amber Alert saves any child, don’t you think it was worth it?” says Terrel Harris, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security.

    I guess so. I guess. So I feel like a jerk complaining about the alerts … because … who knows!? If my evening gets disturbed but there’s a one in a hundred chance a kid won’t get kidnapped? Is that worth it? I don’t really know.

    And so it goes … those of us pleading for calm and proportionality are drowned out … in loudness, in volume, in hyperbole, in moral righteousness … by those who demand watchfulness and wariness at every moment.

    Not to go off on a tangent, but did you know hundreds of thousands of African children die every year of malaria? Couldn’t we direct a little bit of our worry for kids toward them? Those are actual deaths of actual children. Couldn’t we get a little loud, hyperbolic, and morally righteous about them? How about putting a few mosquitos on the evening news?