What are Amber Alerts and Code Adam Alerts

Although more than 800,000 children are reported missing each year, the majority of them are runaways or have been taken by a parent or relative. Amber alerts and Code Adam alerts can be helpful in finding a missing child, whether the child is with a relative or is the possible victim of kidnapping by a stranger.

What Is An "Amber Alert"?

An Amber Alert is a notice to the community about a child who has potentially been kidnapped. The Amber Alert system is named after Amber Hagerman, a nine-year-old Texas girl who was kidnapped in 1996, while riding her bicycle in her neighborhood. Four days later, she was found dead. "AMBER" is now an acronym for "America's Missing Broadcast Emergency Response".

When an Amber Alert is issued:

  • Notices are distributed by television, radio, the Internet, and highway signs, to notify the public when a child is abducted.
  • People who choose may be able to sign up to receive notice by pager, text message or cellular phones.

An Amber Alert notice provides details about the abducted child and, when possible, information about a suspect's vehicle.

The advantage of the Code Amber system is that shortly after a suspected kidnapping, thousands of motorists will be on notice with information about the suspect, and can notify the police with their observations of any suspicious vehicles or activity. As more than seventy percent of children who are killed by their kidnappers are murdered within three hours of their disappearance, prompt and effective action can be crucial.

This system is credited with the rescue of a number of children, including a two-year-old Texas girl who was returned to her mother after her father took her away at gunpoint.

What Is A "Code Adam" Alert?

A Code Adam alert is a notification distributed through a building in which a child is discovered to be missing, that triggers a system to secure the premises and to start a systematic search for the missing child. A description of the child is relayed to individuals throughout the organization, who monitor doors and parking lots to make sure that no child matching the description wanders out alone, or is removed from the premises by an inappropriate person.

Many governments have enacted Code Adam alert systems for public buildings, and many major retailers and public venues have similarly created Code Adam systems.

Although there is some dispute as to the origin of the name, the most common account is that Code Adam alerts are named after six-year-old Adam Walsh, who was murdered following his abduction from a shopping mall in 1981. Adam's father, John Walsh, subsequently advocated for better police response in kidnapping cases, and later hosted the television series, "America's Most Wanted" and "The Hunt With John Walsh".

Obviously, there is great advantage in creating a system which prevents a kidnapping from being successfully completed, and that is the ultimate goal of the Code Adam system.

Is There a Downside To These Alerts?

A potential downside to public alert systems comes from the possibility of their overuse. Just like the story of "The Boy Who Cried Wolf", if the public becomes accustomed to Amber Alerts or Code Adam Alerts to the point of ignoring the information, people may not respond to them. Also, the alert must include sufficient useful information about the child or suspect to make helpful the involvement of the public.

On the other hand, delaying an alert or hesitating to issue an alert based upon concerns of overuse may cause the systems to become ineffective in cases where they might help rescue a child.

Amber Alerts

To help avoid problems with overuse and underuse, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has created criteria for the police to use when screening a report of a missing child for possible use of the Amber Alert system, including:

  • An Amber Alert should not be issued until has confirmed that a child has been abducted;

  • The law enforcement agency issuing the alert should conclude that the circumstances surrounding the abduction suggest that the child is in danger of serious bodily harm or death; and

  • There is enough descriptive information about the child, the suspected abductor, the suspect's vehicle, or some combination thereof, to believe that an immediate broadcast alert will help recover the child.

There is a cost associated with equipment and training associated with the Amber Alert system, although most people find the cost acceptable.

Code Adam Alerts

There are fewer potential problems with a "Code Adam"-type system, as the system is more likely to involve store or government employees as opposed to members of the public. When Code Adam systems are in place, employees typically receive training in an established procedure, permitting a prompt and systematic response to the report of a missing child.

Copyright © 2003 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on May 7, 2018.