CHICAGO (WGN) – In the 20 years since the nation’s Amber Alert system first became a missing and murdered girl’s legacy, the alerts have directly led to the recovery of 1,085 children. Despite those successes, some families feel excluded from the hope the notifications offer.
“I believe if we would have got the Amber Alert we wouldn’t have been at this point right now … I think they would have been home with us right now,” said La Shann Walker, the mother and grandmother of two people who have been missing for nearly seven years.
King Walker was just two years old when he vanished in Gary, Indiana, with his 21 year-old relative Diamond, who has special needs.
King’s grandmother says the family begged Gary police to issue an Amber Alert but were repeatedly rebuffed because detectives said they didn’t have sufficient evidence to prove they had been abducted or identify a suspect.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children helps coordinate the Amber Alert program and officials say states are intentionally selective about criteria that must be met to issue an alert.
“One of the questions that always comes up is [that] there is a concern for de-sensitizing … the public out there will get alert fatigue,” said the center’s Alan Nanavaty.
Due to the success and widespread publicly of Amber Alerts, many states have added other types of notifications. There are Blue Alerts to help track people suspected of killing or severely injuring a police officer and Silver Alerts for missing senior citizens. Illinois also has “endangered missing person advisories” which transmit vehicle information to electronic road signs. Last year, 132 “endangered missing person advisories” were issued in Illinois with all but one resolved, according to state police.
Of the 203 Amber Alerts issued nationwide in 2020, 70% of the alleged abductors had known relationships with the child. That indicates the type of “stranger danger” scenarios many parents fear are not behind most abductions. Last year, Illinois had five Amber Alert activations which state police say led to five children being recovered successfully.
Still, the program has its critics.
“The majority of alerts do nothing,” University of Nevada-Reno assistant criminal justice professor Timothy “Skip” Griffin said after studying the program he branded as “crime control theater.” Griffin’s research concludes most “successful” Amber Alert cases in which the child is recovered unharmed would’ve likely ended that way even if no alert had been issued. “In the rare category of case where the offender is motivated to really do the worst thing — the things that scare you and me — there’s nothing we can do … that’s the brutal truth.”
Griffin encourages law enforcement to be more transparent with the public about the limitations of the system and the strict criteria used that lead to the high resolution rate.
After hearing about Amber Alerts for years, King Walker’s family still feels abandoned and sad that the toddler’s disappearance didn’t trigger an alert. Nearly seven years after the disappearance, the family says even Gary police have stopped responding to their inquiries.
“They can’t speak for themselves and so right now I guess I’m the only one that’s fighting,” said La Shann Walker.
Gary police did not respond to a equest for comment.