An Amber Alert about Amber Alerts

Readers — I haven’t signed up for Amber Alerts, so I haven’t experienced this. Have you? How common is it? I realize Amber Alerts CAN save kids, but not if they become the boy who cried wolf. (What a famous boy!) – L. 

Dear Free-Range Kids: I am a faithful reader who grew up in the dangerous ’70s and ’80s and was a criminology major. I have a very difficult time explaining to my friends that the world is much, much safer for my children. Part of the perception problem is the insanity of the Amber Alert.

Yesterday, while in a meeting, everyone’s phones went off. At the same time. After determining it was neither a fire, nor an earthquake, we read that there was an Amber Alert for a 12 year old boy. He had been “abducted” on Thursday. The Amber Alert came in on Monday. And the Alert on the phones said nothing about the fact that he had been taken by his mother for her regularly scheduled visitation and not returned on time.

While I do believe this is a serious violation of a custody agreement, I am not sure it rises to the occasion of notifying all of Los Angeles County, Orange County, Riverside County, and San Diego County. He was, of course, found safe with his mother:

I think the idea that the “news stories” did not include that the child was taken by the mother was to increase the shock/scare value. Stranger danger!

I will remain committed to “Free-Range,” but the State of California is making it hard to convince others!

Yours, Jill Schindler

Amber Alerts seem like they'd lose their effectiveness if used injudiciously.

Amber Alerts seem like they’d lose their effectiveness if used injudiciously.

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41 Responses to An Amber Alert about Amber Alerts

  1. LM April 16, 2014 at 11:03 am #

    We had an Amber Alert in Ontario on Monday. By virtue of it being an “Amber Alert”, you know that the child was taken by a parent! I’m in the media and it was reported by all outlets that the child was taken by his mother. Thanks to tips, he was found.

  2. anonymous mom April 16, 2014 at 11:04 am #

    As far as I can tell, nearly all Amber Alerts are custody disputes, misunderstandings (grandma has the kid and mom didn’t realize it), or teens who either ran away or just went somewhere their parents didn’t know. I’m not aware of any that have saved a child from a stranger abduction. I don’t see any reason for the general public to be involved in the actual matters that Amber Alerts tend to turn out to be.

  3. Julie April 16, 2014 at 11:16 am #

    The only amber alerts I’ve gotten were actual abductions. One was the girl who was abducted in California after the abductor killed the mom and brother. I’ve seen news stories about kids taken by a parent in a custody dispute. Unless that parent is dangerous I don’t think it should be an Amber alert.

  4. Lynda April 16, 2014 at 11:29 am #

    We had a similar one in Northern California. Someone witnessed a teenaged girl being abducted. We all got alarming texts. Nobody knew who the girl was.

    Turned out, there was no abduction. It was an adult woman getting into an SUV.

    “An Amber Alert triggered Tuesday night by a reported carjacking and kidnapping outside a Safeway store in Oakland was canceled Wednesday after police determined everyone involved knew one another – and that the teenage girl seen in the car was actually a woman, police said.”

    I also never signed up for Amber Alerts. They come to everyone automatically here!

  5. urgbat April 16, 2014 at 11:42 am #

    You don’t have to sign up for amber alerts-it’s a default option on the iPhone (can be turned off) and it doesn’t come in as a typical text–it’s a much louder more urgent vibration/signal.

    I had the same experience as the writer late last year in Jax Florida–a loud alert from my phone waking me up about a child abduction. After googling it, I found it was the child’s mother. It may still have been technically an abduction, but certainly not the nightmare scenario that would jump into most people’s head when they see the alert.

  6. phoenix April 16, 2014 at 11:44 am #

    My phone started doing this too. It’s an annoying beep that I can’t seem to turn off and I am pretty ticked about it. I actually don’t mind the police sending a special text. The last one I got was about a girl here who actually was likely sold into slavery by her own mother. It’s a terrible story. But why can’t I turn it off if I want? Or at least the noise!

  7. pentamom April 16, 2014 at 11:47 am #

    The Facebook Amber Alert thing has a boy-who-cried-wolf tendency, too. People post Amber alerts relevant to their own area (which is not necessarily a bad thing to do) but the effect is that everyone on your friends list, everywhere, gets it, which creates the illusion that there’s an Amber Alert every week somewhere within your own frame of reference.

  8. Donna April 16, 2014 at 12:21 pm #

    My phone does this too. Annoys the crap out of me and I have no idea how to turn it off.

    The Amber Alerts that I get give absolutely no information other than the origination city and a car description so they are largely completely unhelpful.

  9. SP April 16, 2014 at 12:27 pm #

    Go to your cell phone store and they can show you how to turn them off. It is hard to find on your own. You can turn off both Amber Alerts and weather alerts. The only one you can’t turn off is the presidential alerts. (I learned this because my 14 yr old was having anxiety attacks about all the tornado warnings we have in FL. And then I figured a presidential alert would be something really scary… 9/11 type scenario… that I would rather him hear from me then a message on his phone, but Big Brother says I can’t turn that one off!)

  10. Casey April 16, 2014 at 12:29 pm #

    It’s sad to admit but I pretty much tune them out. We get statewide missing-elderly alerts on the highway signs here as well as amber alerts, but in a state the size of Texas I’m not sure how much good it does to tell people 800 miles away that an adult with a Honda Accord is missing.

  11. lollipoplover April 16, 2014 at 1:00 pm #

    We had an Amber Alert last night that came on the TV screen (I thought it was a weather update because the skies were gloomy) and the abductor was the mother. It was later canceled when they were found safe but not before making the rounds on Facebook. Thankfully, I don’t get them on my phone.

    I understand the importance of time with the rare stranger abduction and the need to get the word out to the public. But abusing the system with every custody snafu dilutes effectiveness. If it’s a custody issue, state that first! Or better yet, go directly to family and friends and social networking of those who know the family involved and resolve the domestic issue locally and not involve state of emergency warnings that put it on the level of a tornado. I feel so bad for these kids who have to go back to school as the kid that was all over the news on an Amber Alert just because mom or dad felt like being a douchebag to their ex.

  12. Brad Warbiany April 16, 2014 at 1:22 pm #

    My father-in-law spent many years working for the Los Angeles County police, and much of it was spent in kidnapping. While that sounds like exciting work, when you think of the emotional impact of the word, they never really got involved in “kidnapping for ransom” or kids getting snatched off the street by predators.

    The bulk of the job was dealing with custody disputes. Parent without custody takes the kid to, say, Vermont. He has to travel to Vermont, work with the local judge & PD to get an order to take the kid, bring the kid back to CA, and handle it properly through the courts.

    If Amber Alerts are being used for simple custody issues, that is absolutely ridiculous. For one, these things happen so frequently that it absolutely will be a “boy who cried wolf”, and two, these things are so infrequently issues where the child is actually in danger that the value of the Amber Alert is suspect.

  13. Beth April 16, 2014 at 1:23 pm #

    I don’t know if the criteria varies by state (I would be surprised if it did) but in Wisconsin:

    “1.Child must be 17 years of age or younger
    2.Child must be in danger of serious bodily harm or death.
    3.Initiating agency must have enough descriptive information about the child, the suspect(s) and/or the suspect vehicle(s) to believe an immediate broadcast alert will help locate the child.

    Amber Alert is not to be used for runaways or family abductions unless the child’s life is in danger.

    The Amber Alert plan is for the safe recovery of missing children that a law enforcement agency believes have been abducted and are in danger of serious bodily harm or death. Strict adherence to the criteria is essential in order to prevent the Amber Alert plan from losing credibility and possibly becoming less effective.”

    My 911 Center is responsible for processing, entering, and airing all Amber Alerts statewide, and I can tell you the criteria is followed. We have refused police departments requesting Amber Alerts that were clear family abductions without fear of harm to the child. While not a fan of any law named after a dead child, I’m annoyed that the meaning of this one is being diluted by inappropriate application.

  14. Havva April 16, 2014 at 1:49 pm #

    I was able to disable the Amber Alerts on my Android device. I think I looked the instructions up online. My husband’s phone still gets them, we haven’t tried to disable his yet. It uses the same tone as the weather radio tone, which is quite piercing. But usually they aren’t too frequent. I think I have also seen the option of assigning a different ring tone to the amber alerts.

    My understanding in my area is that they need to have a vehicle description & license plate number/ suspect in order to issue these alerts. As such they seem to be primarily non-custodial parents nabbing kids. Not that the texts say that.

  15. Silver Fang April 16, 2014 at 2:29 pm #

    Amber alerts were supposed to be for children who were abducted and thought to be in mortal danger, not for a 12 year old out having lunch with his mother or teenage runaways.

  16. Gary April 16, 2014 at 2:45 pm #


  17. Lynda April 16, 2014 at 3:02 pm #

    Gary, thank you for the instructions.

    With a small amount of guilt, I turned mine off. While I absolutely want to help keep on the lookout if a real abduction occurs, it seems clear that it’s being used inappropriately in my area. And DANG, that alert is alarming! The first time I heard it, I was driving, phone in purse. I got completely freaked out trying to figure out where the loud urgent alarm was coming from. I know I don’t want to get a false one in the middle of the night (and I’m on call, so I do need to keep my phone on at night).

  18. Coasterfreak April 16, 2014 at 3:21 pm #

    For anyone wondering how to turn these off on Android, open your messaging app, go to the button that pulls up the options (should be near your home button), go to settings, scroll down to CMAS alerts. Within the CMAS alerts, you should be able to turn off Amber Alerts, Imminent Severe alerts and Imminent Extreme alerts (I have no idea what those last two are). You can’t turn off the Presidential alerts, but I would assume if ever such an alert was sent out, it would be something everybody would need to see.

    I actually don’t mind receiving the Amber alerts, but the problem is you can’t keep them from making that horrible noise, at least not that I’ve found. I had one go off during a movie at a theater one night when I had my phone set on “silent”. So I turned the alerts off completely. It’s nothing I opted for to begin with, I just suddenly started receiving them one day.

  19. Donna April 16, 2014 at 4:27 pm #

    Thanks Gary and Coasterfreak. My Amber Alerts, and those other weird things whatever they are, are now off.

    I will add though, just because an abduction involves a parent doesn’t mean that the child is not actually in danger. There are definitely many situations where parental abductions pose a serious threat to the child. Amber Alerts should not be used for custody spats, but hearing that a parent is involved does not mean at all that the child is not in serious danger.

  20. Havva April 16, 2014 at 4:32 pm #

    Imminent Severe alerts and Imminent Extreme alerts are the old weather radio type alerts, basically tornado warnings and the like. That is still active on my phone. It’s gone off twice in a year. One time I was caught out in the weather and it was definitely worthy of advisory. Visibility went from fine to zero in seconds.

  21. Coasterfreak April 16, 2014 at 4:42 pm #

    Thanks, Hawa! I thought that’s probably what they were, although I’ve never received a weather alert like that. Having been caught a few times in some very scary weather situations, I have developed a bit of a fear of severe weather and would very much welcome a weather warning to my phone! :)

  22. Mark April 16, 2014 at 4:57 pm #

    No Amber Alerts (my phone isn’t smart enough to receive them), but I did get a “reverse 911” call about a missing three-year-old boy recently. I turned on my police scanner to see if I could get more detail, and sure enough, about half an hour later it was resolved. The kid had gotten into the linen closet, pulled everything off the bottom shelves, and gone to sleep under the resulting pile.

    Of course, the general public ever learned that the “emergency alert” was about a child who slept through the entire thing, safe at home the whole time.

  23. Stephanie April 16, 2014 at 5:28 pm #

    I don’t think it matters who takes the child. If they put on the Amber Alert that it is a mother, or father, or grandma people will not take it seriously enough. They will minimize it, and yet, if the child is taken by someone who doesn’t have custody, wouldn’t you want to use whatever recourse you can to get YOUR child back?

  24. SOA April 16, 2014 at 6:05 pm #

    Yes, there needs to be some kind of urgency where the child is believed to be in danger. If we do it for every little thing, then it will start being ignored.

  25. Beth April 16, 2014 at 6:10 pm #

    But as I mentioned above, Stephanie, it isn’t up to “you”. It is up to the entity that processes the Amber Alerts to make sure they fit the criteria, and the desire to take advantage of all recourses might not qualify.

  26. SOA April 16, 2014 at 6:12 pm #

    Just to clarify though some relatives could ABSOLUTELY be dangerous if they took the kids. I have a relative we are estranged from that is technically my children’s grandfather but they would absolutely be in danger if this man took them. Since this man is nuts and abusive. So I would be pissed if people did not think it was serious just because he happened to be a relative.

    So it is not the are they are relative or not that bothers me more than what I want to know is “Are they in immediate danger or at least dire potential danger at this moment?” If yes, please alert people. If not, then it really does not have to be dealt with in that way.

  27. Rick April 16, 2014 at 6:34 pm #

    With 1 in 54 boys now being diagnosed with autism, perhaps the amber alert should be changed to let us know the next diagnosis. If there really was concern about children then this should be number one, not some 1 in a million chance of abduction.

  28. Papilio April 16, 2014 at 7:22 pm #

    “Yes, there needs to be some kind of urgency where the child is believed to be in danger. If we do it for every little thing, then it will start being ignored.”

    ‘It won’t be noticed anymore’ is what the Dutch website says, but yes.

  29. CT April 16, 2014 at 7:48 pm #

    I agree with several posters that Amber Alerts should be reserved to occasions when a child is in immediate danger. However, I think that you are ignoring the risk that some children’s parents are to the child. If it is just a custody dispute there should be no Amber Alert. But I suspect in many cases that the “abducting” parent is someone to be afraid of and the fact that they are with the parent is reason for alarm.

  30. Nicole 2 April 16, 2014 at 8:26 pm #

    When I was maybe 12? a kid across the railroad tracks (basically across the street) went missing. Massive search throughout the town, people with flashlights, etc. Ended up being that the girl was at her brownies troop meeting, mom apparently was asleep on the couch when the leader picked the girl up.

    Yep yep.

  31. CrazyCatLady April 16, 2014 at 9:59 pm #

    Makes me glad I don’t have a smart phone. All I get are tones on the radio, most often they are tones to test, which as we live 9 miles from a nuclear reactor that you cannot find on a map, we have a special alert radio. Some of the planned alerts are published, so that we know when they are. Some are not…and that is kind of freaky waiting through the tones to see if it is a test or if we need to bug out because there is a melt down.

    But mostly, I get the Amber Alerts on Facebook. And what really annoys me is that I don’t know if the kid was ever found or not. Like one recently where parents left kid in car sleeping at a motel (not sure if they were inside paying or what) and they came out and kid was gone. I am hoping she woke up, and wandered off looking for parents and eventually made her way to someone who helped her. But I have no idea as it was in another state.

  32. dancing on thin ice April 16, 2014 at 10:09 pm #

    The alerts on the news lack anything specific and are only good if someone knows the missing person. Most don’t even have a photograph. A better use of time and resources is ask the people the person associates with. Strangers would be of no help since they don’t know them by name.

  33. Weather girl April 16, 2014 at 10:09 pm #

    I just wanted to clarify what the weather alerts are for ‘imminent severe’ these are for tornado or flash flood warnings for your area. (Based on what cell tower you are closest too, not what your home phone number is) I would strongly encourage you to leave those on. A tornado warning means there is a suspected or confirmed tornado very near you and you should seek shelter immediately. I’m biased as I work for the agency that issues them (National Weather Service) but I can say we put a lot of work into those warnings and if you are in a tornado warning there is a very real threat very close by. Similarly flash flood warnings require your to take action immediately depending on your location (climb to higher ground, etc) even in the middle of the country where tornadoes are common these alerts are rare(total time less than 2 hours/year almost everywhere)

  34. JJ April 16, 2014 at 10:11 pm #

    I got one this very morning and thought first isn’t this a violation of my right to be undisturbed (I didn’t sign up for this so how is this happening?) and second, if my younger one sees it, this will make her nervous about being kidnapped or something. Like others I assume it’s a non custodial relative.

  35. JJ April 16, 2014 at 10:21 pm #

    And thanks for the info about how to turn it off. I am now Amber alert free.

  36. Peter April 16, 2014 at 10:23 pm #

    With a small amount of guilt, I turned mine off.

    Don’t feel guilty–I turned mine off awhile ago.

    Here in California, they have signs like the one pictured above along the freeways. I see about three of them on the way to work. This is a great time to tell me–I’m on the road, I’m driving, and if I see a blue honda civic, I’ll probably remember enough of the license plate to call 911 and get the full read-out.

    Sending me a message at 3AM when I’m in my bed is a bad time to signal me. I’m not on the road. I was asleep. I won’t remember the description of the car or the license number tomorrow morning when I get on the road–at least until I see the first sign on the freeway. So it’s pretty much useless.

    The interesting thing about this is that I believe the government has mandated that these be presented immediately or be turned off completely. Meanwhile, software developers are researching ways to present this kind of information and letting people define what’s important and what isn’t. Before I leave the house on the way to work, I grab my phone and check my calendar and notifications. It would be great if I could see the message there rather than having it beep at me at 3AM. I’m on my way out of the house, I can look for the car on the local streets while I’m driving to the freeway.

  37. charlene April 16, 2014 at 10:42 pm #

    I live in San Diego and didn’t receive any alerts this week, or last week. However, I was in Washington state on a vacation with my mom who also lives in San Diego. Her phone was going off every 5 or 10 minutes with a terrible alarm. We couldn’t figure out how to make it stop. And we couldn’t do anything about it since we were out of the state. It went on and on all night long. The next day I looked into it and turned it off for her, she is not so tech savvy. Ever since then I have not been a fan of the phone amber alerts. It isn’t something you sign up for. It is something that you automatically receive.

  38. Buffy April 16, 2014 at 11:14 pm #

    Sheesh, does anyone read anyone else’s posts any more?

    Someone earlier, who seemed to be in the know, posted that family abductions are not included, or should not be included, in Amber Alerts UNLESS THE CHILD’S LIFE IS IN DANGER. So there is a variable for abusive or mentally ill relatives or non-custodial parents.

  39. Ann April 17, 2014 at 10:31 am #

    It is interesting to me to hear you say that you haven’t experienced amber alerts just because you haven’t signed up for them. They get pounded in to me no matter what. I’ve turned off the phone notification on my iPhone, but the local news station sends them out as part of their “breaking news” emails (that I did sign up to receive), they are on big signs on all the highways, and they scroll across the bottom of my TV screen no matter what I’m watching. I certainly don’t have to “sign up” for anything to be bombarded with them. Almost every one seems to end as a custody issue, so I’m sad to say I don’t really pay attention to them any more. As often as they come out, I don’t think anyone around here gives them the attention that the alerts were initially designed to create. I pay much more attention to the “silver alerts” for elderly/disabled people who have wandered off. To me, those seem more useful than the overused amber alerts.

  40. Amanda Matthews April 17, 2014 at 4:33 pm #

    While I know that parents can be abusive, I find it hard to believe that late visitation returns are ever cause for Amber Alerts. Dad didn’t abuse the kid all weekend during their scheduled visitation, but there’s just something about Mondays that turns him into an abusive lunatic?

  41. Kitlope April 20, 2014 at 11:40 pm #

    The amber alert system has become a fearmongering joke. It was supposed to be about complete strangers abducting children but now has turned into custody, family issues.

    It’s amazing how fear driven we have become even though probably no more than 5 children in all of Canada get abducted yearly.