A child is missing: So when does law enforcement issue an AMBER Alert?

Posted at 2:17 PM, Apr 29, 2015
and last updated 2017-07-14 11:59:03-04

People often question the practices of law enforcement in the crucial moments after a child goes missing. In analyzing how authorities should respond to missing child calls, what's the best way to make sure every kid is found safe?

Quick guide:

For an overview, click here

For Missouri protocols, click here

For Kansas protocols, click here

For US protocols, click here

 How AMBER Alerts work

The goal of AMBER Alerts is fairly clear: To get information about missing children to as many people as possible in a timely manner to ensure the child is returned to their loved ones safely.

But, is the process as streamlined as it should be?


"In 1996, nine-year-old Amber Hagerman was abducted and murdered in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The area's Association of Radio Managers, with the region's law enforcement agencies, reacted by developing a program to promptly distribute information when a child is abducted. They called the program the AMBER Plan in memory of Amber."

The voluntary collaboration of Missouri's various law enforcement agencies (MoDOT, MSHP, phone and utility companies, media outlets and the public) has the potential to be a great thing -- but may also be hard to orchestrate.

In Missouri, there are a number of agencies and logistical procedures between an initial call from a worried parent and the AMBER Alert message buzzing the phones of the general public.

The below graphic summarizes the process:

 Missouri protocols

In Missouri, law enforcement agencies have a list of criteria detailing when they can issue an AMBER Alert. This list is directly from the Missouri State Highway Patrol (MSHP) website:

  • Law enforcement must confirm a child has been abducted.
  • The child must be age 17 years or younger.
  • Law enforcement must believe the child is in danger of serious bodily harm or death.
  • There is enough descriptive information about the child, abductor, and/or suspect's vehicle to believe an immediate broadcast alert will help.


There is a series of forms to submit and protocols to follow, but the process emphasizes that time is of the essence. In a specific message to law enforcement agencies, Alert Missouri's website says, "The AMBER Alert request needs to be timely. Elapsed time from the incident directly diminishes the usefulness of an alert."

In a video on the MSHP website, Lt. John Hotz advocates for promptness in the AMBER Alert process.

"The sooner we can get that information out to the public, the better the chances of locating that child alive... The odds are dramatically increased," he said.

 Kansas protocols

In Kansas, the criteria are mostly similar:

  • There has been a child abduction
  • The child should be 17 years of age or younger or have a proven mental or physical disability.
  • Law enforcement must believe the child is in danger of serious bodily harm or death.
  • There is information to disseminate to the general public which could assist the recovery of the victim or apprehension of the suspect.
  • The evidence must also show the victim is likely to be in the broadcast area.


The Kansas protocol notes that most cases of runaways or custody disputes do not qualify for AMBER Alerts. The website does provide assistance and contact info should either of those be the case.

 National protocols

The nationwide criteria from the US Department of Justice mostly reflect the state-by-state practices, but have some additions:

  • There is reasonable belief by law enforcement that an abduction has occurred.
  • The law enforcement agency believes that the child is in imminent danger of serious bodily injury or death.
  • There is enough descriptive information about the victim and the abduction for law enforcement to issue an AMBER Alert to assist in the recovery of the child.
  • The abduction is of a child aged 17 years or younger.
  • The child’s name and other critical data elements, including the Child Abduction flag, have been entered into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) system.


If you have any questions about AMBER Alert procedures that weren't answered here, feel free to contact your local law enforcement to clarify.


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