For any parent, the thought that your child could get snatched off the street and disappear in an instant is horrifying. Yet, in 1996, that's exactly what happened to 9-year-old Amber Hagerman as she rode her bike near her grandparents' Arlington, Texas, home.
Just like that she was gone. She was sexually assaulted and killed. Her body was found several days later in a drainage ditch about four miles from where she was taken.
But her family and friends were not content to just mourn her death. They were determined to help prevent similar atrocities to other children. Their efforts led to the creation of the AMBER (America's Missing Broadcast Emergency Response) Alert System, which now operates in all 50 states.
Last week marked the 10th anniversary of the first Illinois AMBER Alert broadcast in Illinois. The milestone deserves recognition as the alert system is an important tool in finding missing children.
"While we hope for a day when we never again need an AMBER Alert, the broadcast community, as always, stands ready to voluntarily serve at a moment's notice," said Dennis Lyle, president and CEO of the Illinois Broadcaster's Association, in written remarks.
"We're humbled that so many successful recoveries of abducted children have been credited to the immediacy of over-the-air AMBER Alert broadcasts ..."
According to information provided by the Illinois AMBER Alert Task Force, the state system has been used to broadcast 88 messages of abducted children with the Alert accounting directly for 41 children returned home safely. So far this year, there have been six alerts, with four recoveries credited to the AMBER alert.
Nationally, AMBER alerts have been credited for more than 590 children returning home safely since 1997.
"This program is unlike many others because it is a public partnership," the task force says. "Citizens in Illinois can take pride in the fact that they can help each and every time a child is abducted by simply being aware of their surroundings and reporting what they see to law enforcement officials."
That instant reporting from the public is the goal of the system, the task force says, because every second counts in helping to find a child before he or she is harmed.
Amber Hagerman was gone in minutes. Would an alert system have helped to track down the truck into which she was pulled? There's no way of knowing. Her murderer has never been found.
But those 590 kids who returned home to their parents since then can attest that an alert system does work. As long as people are willing to get involved, report what they see and act fast, it can and does work.
To learn more about Illinois' system go to www.amberillinois.org.