Stamp can't lick childhood danger
By James Alan Fox
Monday,  April 24, 2006

It may not stamp out the problem of child abduction. But next month the U.S. Postal Service will release a 39-cent commemorative seal highlighting the Amber Alert, the emergency notification system launched when a child is missing and believed to be in grave danger.

 You've likely heard the alerts on the radio or seen them on highway displays that most days preach "Buckle Up" or, during pennant fever, "Cowboy Up." Now you can receive them automatically on a cell phone or other wireless device.

For a novice like me who has trouble pronouncing "philatelist," Amber Alert is an odd choice for the stamp-of-the-month club. I can appreciate stamps for famous Americans and historic events, or the classic "love" stamps so popular on wedding invitations. Has Amber Alert been so effective as to warrant such recognition?

Reportedly, there are some 200 happy endings linked to the program. On its Web site, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children highlights five "Amber plan success stories":

While these victims may have been snatched without authority, it is presumptuous to credit Amber Alert for their rescue. Moreover, these episodes hardly seem to have involved the stranger danger that motivated Congress in 2003 to establish a nationwide alert network. Instead, they entailed issues of custody and domestic conflict for which Amber was not intended.

Understandably, an anxious parent would want the widest possible broadcast about a missing son or daughter. Yet it may not be reasonable or necessary to alert everyone; eventually people tune it out.

And what about the mistakes? The official Amber Alert FAQ Web-entry on "successes and failures" is silent on this question.

However, an Amber Alert was triggered earlier this month for a 16-year-old Kansas girl who fabricated a tale of being kidnapped at gunpoint. Closer to home, an alert was launched last November when a 4-year-old boy disappeared from his yard in Hanover, only to be found hours later sleeping beneath the porch.

Don't get me wrong - I'm all for protecting kids from harm. I've raised three, and understood when President Bush called child abduction "a parent's worst nightmare." Still it is only one of many worst nightmares. Other calamities don't engender as aggressive a response despite being more prevalent than the stranger abductions that prompted Congress to pass the national Amber plan. Hardly the epidemic reflected in media reports, about 125 children are kidnapped each year by strangers, and about 70 of them are slain.

With hundreds of youngsters killed each year in bicycle accidents, why didn't Congress mandate helmets while busy saving children with the Amber Alert bill? With hundreds of children drowning annually, what about upgrading security regulations for public and private swimming pools? Perhaps we could enhance school bus safety standards, require wooden bats for youth baseball and, of course, mandate child safety-locks for all firearms.

Because of the horror that child kidnapping brings to mind, we are often too quick in sounding the Amber alarm. Yet in other arenas of child safety, we're simply not alarmist enough. Shielding children from harm is a priority, no matter what form, human or otherwise, the peril.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University. Talk back at