One click away: New rollout of Amber Alerts on social media hopes to reach new audiences
When Amber Hagerman of Arlington, Texas, was murdered in 1996, local broadcasters joined forces with law enforcement to develop an early warning system that would help find abducted children.
Twenty-six years later, one push notification at a time, the alerts continue to reach new audiences by the minute, including across Southwest Florida.
The alerts are in place for children younger than 18 who law enforcement have reasonable suspicion that the child was abducted and the child is in danger of death or serious body injury.
Now, Instagram has made the feature available for users nationwide.
It's part of a new partnership between Meta — the parent company for Facebook — and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said Kate Randle, public policy manager at Meta.
"We actually are launching this across the United States, but Florida actually had the second-highest number of Amber Alerts in 2020," Randle said. "I think it's especially important for Floridians."
Randle says she hopes the new feature will help rescue children.
"The idea is to really meet people where they are and get information as quickly as possible," Randle said. "The first few hours after a child is abducted are really crucial."
She says the idea is to push out Amber Alerts by any means available, which could include TV, listening to the radio while driving and while scrolling through social media.
"If you're just hanging out looking at Instagram, that's just going to be a new place to connect with people and get them this information," she said. "I think another really exciting opportunity around Instagram specifically is that the alert includes a picture as well as additional information around the child."
Additionally, Randle says the feature includes the ability to contact local law enforcement directly through the app.
"I think it's pretty unique to social media that we're able to have that connection point," Randle said.
Further, the feature allows users to share Amber Alerts with their social network, she said.
"It's an added emphasis within your social community that existing Amber Alert systems don't necessarily have," Randle said.
However, she says this isn't their first experience pushing Amber Alerts.
In 2015, they made the feature available for Facebook users.
"So the alerts are already on Facebook," Randle said. "This is just expanding it to Instagram."
Facebook has helped crack missing persons cases. In 2016, they issued an Amber Alert for a 4-year-old girl abducted in Lakeland.
An anesthesia technologist in Memphis, Tennessee, was on her lunch break when she saw the alert on Facebook, Randle said.
She then helped locate the missing child.
"The child had made its way away from Florida up to Tennessee, but because of the Facebook alert, this woman was able to get in action and help resolve the situation," Randle said.
Randle has a message of hope.
"I think we're just hopeful that expanding to Instagram is just a whole new audience where we can continue having similar success stories," Randle said.
She added the goal is to reach as many people as possible.
"The idea is that based on your location ... We want to make sure it's in a designated search area," Randle said.
To determine one's location, Randle says they rely on several signals, which include using one's IP address, saved addresses and location services.
"Wherever you are in the moment, it can deliver the correct information," Randle said.
She says the main goal is to help connect local law enforcement with anyone who might have information.
"The biggest challenge is just getting the information to people so that if they do see something, they can get back," Randle said. "If you cast a really wide net, it's just more likely that there's going to be good information received."
Randle says their goal is to meet those expectations with the recent rollout.
Facebook and Instagram are intended for users 13 and older.
Leemie Kahng-Sofer, director of case management for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's Missing Children Division, said this is a tremendous opportunity for them.
"It really helps us in terms of getting Amber Alerts out to a wider group of people that can also share with the people that they're connected with on their own particular social media platforms," Kahng-Sofer said during a phone interview.
Kahng-Sofer says they're now able to combine the tool of an Amber Alert with the advantages of social media.
"The speed with which we receive information these days is is wonderful," Kahng-Sofer said.
Kahng-Sofer advises social media users watch out for and listen to any press releases with the latest and most accurate contact information.
"This will help the social media focus on finding the missing child, which is where the focus absolutely needs to be," Kahng-Sofer said. "We're really just combining the power of photos with the Amber Alert tool."
Kahng-Sofer says the ability to share the photos on social media could potentially reach that one person that has made the sighting or has some kind of information.
"It's a very powerful tool in order to just really utilize the public in their own networks," Kahng-Sofer said. "Especially when you know time is ticking, and it's imperative to get the child recovered as soon as possible."
Kahng-Sofer has some advice to share for the new audiences that will begin to receive these Amber Alerts.
"We would ask, even though they're the younger audience, [that they] notify their parent, work through things with their parent and trusted adults that are nearby," Kahng-Sofer said. "Keep their eyes and ears out for any sign of the child and then call law enforcement immediately."
Since 2017, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement has issued two Amber Alerts for Lee County and none for Collier County, according to data provided by FDLE. Both those cases have been solved.
During the same timeframe, 68 Amber Alerts have been issued statewide. Two of those remain active — one from Brevard County and one from Miami-Dade.
At one point, the search for the missing child from Miami-Dade County included efforts in south Fort Myers.
That child, Andrew Caballeiro, was a week old in January 2020 when his father, Ernesto Caballeiro, 49, kidnapped him and apparently murdered three women linked to the baby.
The day after taking the infant, Ernesto Caballeiro was found dead from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound in Pasco County. Andrew has never been found.
In terms of Missing Child Alerts, since 2017 the FDLE has issued 13 alerts for Lee County and two for Collier County. All of those cases are closed.
Statewide, the numbers for Missing Child Alerts rose to 239 since 2017, said Jeremy Burns, spokesperson for FDLE. All statewide cases have been solved as well, he said.
Other organizations such as Crime Stoppers can help the local community report these crimes anonymously, such as a missing child.
"Crime Stoppers is the only anonymous way to report information," Trish Routte, manager for Southwest Florida Crime Stoppers, told The News-Press and the Naples Daily News. "We do that by design, because we understand sometimes people don't want to be seen talking to law enforcement, don't want to have their name in a police report, or don't want to have to go to court to testify."
Tomas Rodriguez is a Breaking/Live News Reporter for The News-Press and the Naples Daily News. You can reach Tomas at TRodriguez@gannett.com or 772-333-5501. Follow him on Twitter @TomasFRoBeltran.