The past two months have seen three Amber Alerts in Ontario, one of which although properly intended, ended up being false and the other two culminated in the successful location of missing children. Unfortunately, a great deal of confusion and a level of criticism continues to permeate a process by which police, the media and public work together to find abducted children.

AMBER Alert is a child abduction alert system that originated in the United States, following the 1996 abduction and murder of 9-year-old Amber Hagerman in Arlington, Texas. Although named after the young victim in that tragedy, AMBER is an acronym for America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response.

This system came to Canada of course and in Ontario is managed by the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP), but it is truly a partnership and a successful one at that.

Although Ontario has seen 3 Amber Alerts already in 2016, there were only 2 in all of 2015, and only 36 since the program’s inception here in 2003. There has never been more than 9 in a single year.

An Amber Alert is only issued if the following criteria is met:

  • a law enforcement agency believes a child under 18 years of age has been abducted and that an immediate broadcast alert will help in locating the child;
  • the law enforcement agency believes the child is in danger;
  • there is descriptive information about either the child, the abductor and/or the vehicle.

When Ontario’s police services respond to reported child abductions, they gather the information and descriptors; assess the totality of the circumstances as they relate to the Amber Alert criteria; and notify the OPP, whose personnel immediately activate the process.

Electronically from there, Ministry of Transportation highway signs; Ontario Lottery and Gaming lottery terminals; as well as traditional and social media outlets are simultaneously advised. Additionally, through the Ontario Association of Broadcasters (OAB) a public service announcement interrupts radio and television programming with a digital voice that provides the particulars of the alert. This is accomplished through Pelmorex Communications Inc.’s National Alert Aggregation & Dissemination System (NAAD), which also disseminates public safety alerts like weather emergencies. There is no charge for these services.

There have been valid comprehension concerns raised about the quality of that digitized voice and the OAB has committed to working to improve that. Other distresses about the apparent insensitive interruption of programming are laughable, if not offensive. Excuse me if your favourite comedy or talent show was so callously disrupted, but someone’s child was abducted!

In the most recent case where a man allegedly abducted his four-year-old daughter from his ex-wife in Aurora, both media and public concern was raised about the apparent four-hour time lag between the abduction and the Amber Alert activation.

In the absence of all the facts, these concerns are quite understandable, as time is of the essence. I do know that police are faced with a variety of competing priorities and information gaps when arriving at a difficult situation where high-emotion, chaos and confusion are commonplace. That’s not an excuse, but the officers are generally running around the immediate area looking for the child and/or evidence, and witnesses are understandably in full panic mode. The initial information might not meet the criteria for an alert, but as the investigation develops, it may well.

Amber Alerts are not intended for cases involving parental abductions or runaways – except in life-threatening situations, which may well have accounted for the delay in activation in the York Region situation. There isn’t always danger involved when during the course of a marital divide, one parent takes a child without the permission of another. It may well violate a court order, but does not mean the child is in danger from that parent.

Regardless, OPP Commissioner Vince Hawkes has promised to have the circumstances in that case reviewed and so he will. If there were gaps, he, his staff, the law enforcement community and the OAB will immediately address them – all in the best interests of Ontario’s children.

As the OPP’s website so accurately states: “The Ontario AMBER Alert program is an excellent example of how law enforcement and the media can work with the community to protect the safety of our children.” Amber Alert works. The last 2 children abducted were located and are back in the care of their much-relieved parents.

It is all about the children, not our evening television entertainment. If there is a more critical commodity in the world than our children, I’m hard-pressed to think of what that is, but I’m thoroughly convinced that it isn’t a TV sitcom.

Chris Lewis served as Commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police from 2010 until he retired in 2014. He can be seen regularly on CTV and CP24 giving his opinion as a public safety analyst.