Saturday, March 15, 2003

Amber Alerts available in Ky. and Ohio

Patton signed law recently to help find kids

By Jim Hannah, The Cincinnati Enquirer
and Shelley Martin, Enquirer contributor

Gov. Paul Patton signed Kentucky's version of the Amber Alert notification into law the day Elizabeth Smart was found in Utah.

The happy coincidence formalizes the system that had already been operating since August, when the state took immediate action after California officials used the system to rescue two abducted teens.

In Ohio, an Amber Alert system has been operating since August, when Gov. Bob Taft, also moved by the rescues in California, signed an executive order.

Ohio uses two statewide systems to alert the public about missing children. Hamilton County offered the pilot program for one of them.

The A Child Is Missing Program was initiated in Hamilton County and has recently been extended statewide. Terry Peaks, director of Ohio's Missing Children Clearinghouse, said 98 percent of the calls the program sends out are listened to, and more than 30 children have been recovered since it was initiated.

"Ohio's plan is different from any other state's," Peaks said. "It encourages local plans to be more active in publicizing cases. The majority of children have been found within 25 miles of their home, so it's more likely a regional alert would be effective."

The Amber Alert notifies the media about nonfamily abductions and A Child Is Missing sends out 1,000 automated messages to area residents when a child is abducted by a family member, Peaks said.

Kentucky State Police Capt. Sonny Cease said Phase I of the Kentucky Amber Alert system using broadcast media was in effect before Frankfort made it law and had a successful statewide test in December.

Cease said he is preparing to implement the second phase. In Phase 2, 30,000 state employees will receive an instant message on their computer screens when a child is missing.

It also calls for the state's largest telephone company, Bell South, to send instant messages to its more than 1,000 service vehicles on the road at any time.

When the system is activated, officials first have the ability to broadcast a description of the child and any other relevant information on 25 television stations and more than 300 radio stations whose signals are picked up in Kentucky. This includes TV and radio in Cincinnati because they serve the Northern Kentucky area.

The electronic road billboards like ARTIMIS can also be used.

"The whole goal of the alert is to have as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, know about the abduction," Cease said.

While there would be some crossover to media outlets in other states, the Kentucky system isn't compatible with the Amber Alert systems in the seven states that border Kentucky. Cease said each state uses different technology that prevents authorities from forming one integrated system.

Kentucky Rep. Carolyn Belcher, D-Preston, who introduced the Amber Alert legislation, said she would welcome federal legislation to streamline the system.

"With the federal bill, it will help coordinate the effort between states when we do have a situation," she said. "It can be extremely critical any time you are in one of those border cities or counties."

In Kentucky, Cease said police process more than 6,000 missing persons reports a year. At any one time, 450 people are missing in Kentucky, 250 of whom are juveniles.

The last known abduction that would have met the criteria to activate the Amber Alert system in Kentucky was a 1996 abduction in Bowling Green.

At about 12:36 p.m. on July 24, 1996, 7-year-old Morgan Violi was abducted from the parking lot of an apartment building.

The abduction occurred almost directly in front of her family's apartment. The suspect was driving a maroon-colored 1978 Chevy van that was believed to have been stolen in Dayton, Ohio, the day before.

Morgan's body was found about three months later 40 miles south in White House, Tenn. No one has ever been charged with the crime.

In Ohio, Taft also signed a Senate bill creating a task force to examine the child abduction system and continue to improve it. The task force works with local police departments that have been using child abduction alert systems.

"Leads and sightings even in old or cold cases must continue to be worked. Citizens, as well as good police work and the media, all play a role in helping to bringing our children home," Peaks said.


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