It’s midnight, and suddenly your cellphone starts to quake violently. Its shrill tone sounds like a foghorn blaring into the night, as ominous as the message it carries: five hundred miles away, a child’s been abducted.
If you live in Texas, Amber Alerts can feel like a fairly common occurrence. Relative to the rest of the country, they are: Texas issues the most alerts of any state. Last year, a total of 181 alerts were broadcast across the United States, and Texas accounted for 17 percent of them, or 31 alerts. Yet only a tiny fraction of the children reported missing actually receive an Amber Alert, since the system is reserved for only the most serious cases of child abduction; 34,828 missing-child reports were filed in Texas just last year.
John Bischoff, the vice president of the Missing Children Division at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), a nonprofit that functions as a nationwide clearinghouse to assist in locating missing children, doesn’t see Texas’s high number of Amber Alerts as a problem. “I see high numbers as a sign of good reporting,” Bischoff said. Bischoff and the Department of Justice maintain that the Amber Alert system has been a real boon in recovering missing and abducted children. According to Bischoff, 3,540 Amber Alerts have been sent out nationwide since 2005, and 1,140 missing children were recovered as a result; 136 of those were specifically recovered because of the wireless emergency alert (the one that blares on your phone).
But the system has also failed some Texans because of delays in the process of dispatching alerts. A Texas law that went into effect in June seeks to address the issue by allowing local police to make the call on when to send out an alert, with the goal of notifying the public more quickly when a child goes missing.
The emergency broadcast system got its start in Texas. The name itself is both an acronym that stands for America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response and a nod to Amber Hagerman, a nine-year-old Arlington girl who was kidnapped while riding her bicycle in a parking lot in 1996. Four days later, her body was found in a creek a few miles from her grandparents’ house. After her murder, Dallas–Fort Worth broadcasters teamed up with local law enforcement to develop the early warning system to help locate abducted children. Over time, that local effort turned into a nationwide initiative. “It was a technology born out of tragedy,” Bischoff said.
When a child goes missing, local law enforcement is called. Officers then conduct an investigation, and when they’ve gathered enough information to share with the public, they contact their state-level Amber Alert coordinator, which in Texas is under the authority of the Department of Public Safety (DPS). Before an Amber Alert can be disseminated, the alert coordinator determines that the case meets certain criteria. These criteria vary from region to region, but they typically follow guidance issued by the Department of Justice: Is there reasonable belief by law enforcement that an abduction has occurred? Does law enforcement believe the child is in imminent danger of serious bodily harm or death? Is there enough descriptive data about both the victim and the abductor to help assist in recovery of the child?
The process of meeting these criteria can cause unnecessary delays that can translate to life or death. This was the case for one Texas mother, Maitlyn Gandy, who says the Amber Alert system failed her daughter. In November 2022, Gandy’s seven-year-old daughter, Athena Strand, was abducted from Athena’s father’s front yard, in Wise County, by a FedEx delivery driver. “I begged, from the moment that I got to her father’s property, for an Amber Alert,” Gandy said earlier this year, testifying before the Texas House Committee for Homeland Security & Public Safety in support of a bill authored by representative Lynn Stucky, a Republican from Denton. Gandy said that despite her repeated appeals to law enforcement officers to dispatch an alert immediately, she kept getting the same response: “Her case did not meet the criteria for an Amber Alert to be issued,” Gandy said. “It wasn’t until about twenty-four hours later that it was sent out.” Forty-eight hours later, Strand’s body was found near the edge of the Trinity River. “If an Amber Alert had been issued immediately . . . it could have made a difference in my child’s life,” Gandy said.
Still, some studies have found that the Amber Alert system is often ineffective. A 2021 nationwide study led by a researcher at the University of Nevada, Reno showed that while Amber Alerts were often successful in familial abduction cases, they proved much less effective in the more insidious cases when a child was abducted by a stranger. The study also argued that the alert system rarely appeared to save lives. And a 2023 investigation by USA Today showed that the alerts are most effective for Anglo and Hispanic children; while Black children receive Amber Alerts at rates comparable to those at which they’re reported missing, the investigation found, the alerts are much less likely to help locate them.
When it comes to dispatching alerts, Texas has predetermined regions that it can activate in case of an abduction, though law enforcement may also play a role in determining the geographical range of the alert. That’s why Houston residents might receive an Amber Alert for an abduction that occurred in Abilene, hundreds of miles across the state. “It’s not uncommon for Amber Alerts to be extended to other areas, and even, at times, other states, if the child or the route of travel of the abductor is believed to be going in that direction,” Bischoff said. Across the country, most alerts were dispatched statewide last year, according to a report published by NCMEC. But most children are recovered locally: according to the same report, out of 155 Amber Alert cases in which the child was reported missing and recovered, 72 percent of recoveries occurred within fifty miles of where the child was abducted.
Stucky’s bill, which passed both chambers and was signed by Governor Abbott, took effect in June. In addition to giving local police greater control in determining when to send an alert, “Athena’s Law” allows the chief law enforcement officer in a municipality to localize the alerts, broadcasting them within a hundred-mile range of where a child has gone missing and in all counties neighboring the one in which an abduction is believed to have occurred. These local broadcasts won’t replace statewide Amber Alerts, but they utilize the existing system while giving local law enforcement greater oversight to determine who gets an Amber Alert and when. Does this mean that Texans will get more notices on their phones? Maybe, said Stucky in a phone interview.
“Ultimately, I believe Texans will take greater notice of the regional alert because they’re closer to where the child is likely to be found,” he said.