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Amber Alert program underway

TORONTO, Ont. - On Jan. 15, a public safety program was introduced to help police locate abducted children by broadcasting descriptions of victims, abductors and suspect vehicles on a variety of publi...


TORONTO, Ont. – On Jan. 15, a public safety program was introduced to help police locate abducted children by broadcasting descriptions of victims, abductors and suspect vehicles on a variety of public radio and television channels, as well as, COMPASS – the Ministry of Transportation’s (MTO) network of electronic highway message signs.

Bob Runciman, Minister of Public Safety and Security, Transportation Minister, Norm Sterling, Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) superintendent, Robert Goodall and Holly Benson, executive director for Child Find Ontario, jointly announced the inauguration of the Amber Alert program here in Ontario.

The original Amber Alert program was established in 1996 in Arlington, Tex., as a result of the kidnapping and murder of nine-year-old Amber Hagerman.

The surrounding community, upset because they were not aware and therefore unable to help, lobbied together and formed the first Amber Alert.

The program has spread across 85 cities, towns, states and provinces in North America, and officials are pleased to expand the program in Ontario.

“I’m tickled that we can get everyone involved. The MTO, the public safety and security, law enforcement, truckers and everyone on the highway that will see the alert message come up,” says Benson.

“It’s a phenomenal collaboration of everyone’s eyes and ears going out at the same time,” she says.

The Amber Alert program will incorporate the efforts of all sorts of different agencies and organizations along with the community, which puts everybody on the same page, working together, says Benson, and truckers are an integral part.

“Although they are heroes, God knows they are the knights of the road, we don’t expect the truckers to apprehend a suspect or stop a vehicle that they may think is being sought, but what’s great is they can let the authorities know immediately and if they can stay in sight of the car, it’s even better,” says Benson.

Superintendent, Rick Kotwa, OPP corporate communications, agrees that collaborative efforts are critical.

“It is certainly important that there are a number of partners who are all working toward a common goal – that being the safety of children – so I think it is important that everyone understand the program and understand that they play a vital role in it.”

Most children who are abducted by strangers who intend to do them harm will be murdered within a 48-hour period, says Benson.

So the purpose of the Amber Alert program is to immediately help prevent this from happening.

Amber Alert messages are intended only for cases where children have been abducted by strangers, not runaway teens or a child who is abducted by a parent in a custody dispute.

Last year in Ontario, there were about 15 cases of stranger abductions reported to police, which is 15 cases too many, says Benson, but isn’t a huge number in comparison to the number of missing kids cases the province sees each year.

So it is important for drivers to know that when an Amber Alert message is broadcast, it is a dire and critical emergency.

Bruce O’Neill of the Ministry of Public Safety and Security, says Bob Runciman, Minister of Public Safety and Security and the ministry has the lead in the Amber Alert program.

It formed from Runciman’s notion to implement a program similar to the state of California that saved two teens last summer.

Truckers are going to be a valuable partner in the Amber Alert program, says O’Neill.

“Truckers travel our highways and biways by the thousands, and they can pass a message along on their CBs quite readily,” O’Neill says. “Truckers are traditionally very community conscious, they are always the first ones to stop and help a disabled motorist and so they would be more likely to see a vehicle in question than anybody else.”

Another way the trucking industry takes action with Child Find Ontario is the willingness of trucking companies to mount missing children posters on their trucks, putting those pictures out to hundreds of thousands of people across North America.

“A photograph is still the most effective way to get a missing child recovered. It’s a great program, and we love the trucking companies that do this, and we encourage more to do the same,” says Benson.

Getting the information out as quickly as possible is important, says Valerie Gatto, safety manager for Hyndman Transport in Wroxeter, Ont.

Hyndman Transport began participating in the Child Find poster program because one of their employees’ daughter went missing and they have been participants for years.

“I think the program is a really good thing,” says Gatto. “The trucks are everywhere, they are across the country, they are on the highways, they’re in the little towns and in the big cities so that is one of the biggest assets of putting them on the back of the trailers.”

There are other possible ways Child Find and the trucking industry can work together.

Gatto says she would like to see a designated missing children bulletin board at truck stops so the truckers have the opportunity to take a look at more children than the one on the back of their trailer.

Benson would like to see Child Find get on to trucking GPS listings so they can go out on their distribution lists.

As for the Amber Alert program, Kotwa hopes it won’t be necessary to use at all. “If we do need it and it saves one life then it’s worth it,” says Kotwa.


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