AMBER Alert no doubt helps find missing children. But the Troubleshooters have uncovered some disturbing details into the lack of oversight in the system.
First, a Troubleshooters review of three of the most recent AMBER Alert cases in Connecticut found a delay of up to three and a half hours from the time a child was reported missing to when an AMBER Alert was issued-even after the criteria for an alert have been met. The criteria include the belief a child is at risk of injury or death, and a description of the child, suspect, or vehicle--if not all three.
It was 4:02 pm on December 6th, 2012 when two-year-old Luis Trinidad Jr. was allegedly abducted by a stranger. By 5pm, local police hit the airwaves to issue a public alert with a description of Luis and the car he was taken in. They did not wait for the AMBER, which comes an hour and a half after Luis is reported missing.
“Every cop in and outside the city was looking for this kid in a matter of minutes,” said Hartford Police Spokesman Lt. Brian Foley.
But in the time it took to issue an AMBER Alert, the suspected carjacker was able to take the child 20 miles away to Bristol and give him to his own relatives, before driving all the way back to abandon the car in Hartford. Thankfully, the suspect's relatives brought the child to police.
In New Haven on January 16th, 2013, it was 10:52 am when two-year-old Madison Wilson was allegedly abducted by her estranged father. At 11:33, police records indicate the suspect threatened to kill himself and Madison. Yet there is no AMBER alert until 1:12 that afternoon--a delay of nearly two and a half hours for an AMBER Alert to be issued.
"We always try to get it out as quick as possible. But there are other factors in an investigation,” said New Haven Police Spokesman David Hartman.
Hartman said officers were in contact with the father, but it wasn’t until the alert is issued that relatives convince her father to let Madison go. And in North Stonington in February, grandmother Debra Denison abducted her two young grandsons. In this case, it wasn't unusual for the grandmother to be with the kids. But the parents eventually realized something was wrong and called police at 4 o’clock that afternoon. By 5:15pm relatives reported finding a suicide note that made it clear the kids were in danger.
An AMBER Alert was issued just after 7:30pm, more than two hours after the note was found and reported to authorities. By the time witnesses spotted the car, it was too late. Denison had shot and killed herself and her grandsons. This is the first AMBER Alert in Connecticut to end in the death of a child. At the time, State Police Spokesman Lieutenant Paul Vance told NBC Connecticut the AMBER was issued as soon as relatives found the note.
"As soon as we received and obtained that information we ramped it up additionally and did everything we could, used every tool in our toolbox to attempt to locate these three people," said Lt. Vance.
Lt. Vance is the state AMBER Alert coordinator. We went to him with what we found. He cautioned against holding an AMBER investigation to a time frame, and explained that police are dealing with a lot in these situations. He said every alert is evaluated case by case. As for the North Stonington case, the Medical Examiner will not release the times of death, so it is hard to determine if the AMBER Alert system would have made any difference.
Vance insisted that while the time frame may appear concerning, there is much more going on behind the curtains of a police investigation--though he said he can't go into detail about what that may be.
State Police have final say. Their agency signs off on an AMBER Alert when it's requested by local authorities. Emergency messages hit TV airwaves, road signs, cell phones, social media and even the state lottery system.
“The system is effective. It's very, very good. It's a great tool to have in the toolbox,” said Lt. Vance.
He said each potential abduction case has to meet certain strict criteria for an AMBER Alert to be issued. That includes confirming there has been an actual abduction.
Yet in Simsbury last November, police issued an AMBER Alert for a missing mom and child because they believed the mother was acting erratically
A police source confirmed to NBC Connecticut that this was not an abduction, and there were never any accusations the mother wanted to hurt her child.
The two were found safely, and no arrest was ever made.
Lt. Vance told us that while he can't release details on the case, police had enough information to believe an AMBER was needed.
"It dilutes the effect and desensitizes the public to the very intense nature of a call like this,” said Dr. John DeCarlo, a Criminal Justice professor at the University of New Haven and a former police chief himself.
The federal government recommends states conduct after action reviews after each alert to keep track of how the system is working. That is outlined in the Department of Justice's AMBER Alert best practices. But after months of trying to get those documents from the state, the Troubleshooters were told--
“They're verbal. There's no written reports. It’s an after action review of the case so we'll review the case to make sure it met the criteria. That's the extent of the review,” said Lt. Vance.
“So it's just a discussion?" asked our reporter.
"Basically. Or an interview with a responding officer,” replied Vance.
But the Troubleshooters found out Connecticut's AMBER Alert Committee hadn't reviewed the last seven AMBER Alerts issued in Connecticut, including the incidents in Simsbury, Hartford, New Haven, and even the AMBER that ended tragically in North Stonington.
In fact, when we reached out to chairman Wayne Mulligan, he couldn't remember the last time the committee met.
We were told repeatedly that the committee had no plans to gather. But after the Troubleshooters began asking questions, the state's Amber Committee suddenly convened at State Police headquarters. It was then that the committee reviewed all of the AMBER Alerts issued last year and the two from this year. The only written record the Troubleshooters were able to obtain are meeting minutes, which state in part, "It was determined that proper procedures were followed in every case and that Amber played a role in solving every one.” Remember, this is the complete written review for the cases in Hartford, New Haven, and the deadly AMBER Alert in North Stonington among others.
The Troubleshooters obtained an after action report from Ohio. The comparison was stark. Ohio’s review consisted of a detailed written report that recorded to the minute how an AMBER Alert went down.
The federal government has poured $42 million into the AMBER Alert program over the last ten years. Yet there are no mandated oversight procedures in place. The DOJ said it simply suggests each state implement its own review process. But the agency could not tell us how many states actually do that.
Experts say periodic reports are key to the success of AMBER Alert.
"After action reports are a huge thing that need to be reviewed on a constant basis by all the stakeholders,” said DeCarlo.
And the Troubleshooters noticed a disturbing trend. Since 2005, statistics from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children show the average time between when a child goes missing and AMBER activation has slowed down. Most years, the time was one to three hours, until 2011 when the average time jumped to four to six hours. NCMEC told us in a statement, “Statistics pertaining to the time frame a child is reported missing and the time an AMBER Alert is activated is not a valid performance measure of proper use of AMBER Alerts. There are many unknown variables that occur during an investigation of an abducted child. Gathering the necessary data to issue an AMBER Alert often times take time and sometimes is readily available.”
Back here in Connecticut, the incoming chair of the AMBER Committee, Michael Rice, told us there have been few changes made to the AMBER program since it was first implemented. Rice declined an on camera interview for our story.
Still AMBER Alert coordinators in other jurisdictions tell the Troubleshooters that there may be a lax attitude on the part of some AMBER partners because the system is overseen primarily by guidelines--not mandates--and volunteers, not dedicated professionals.
It’s a tool meant to protect the most vulnerable among us-- one that is often touted, but perhaps rarely scrutinized.
"It's a difficult situation but obviously we don't have the option of doing it badly,” said DeCarlo.