In an incident that gained national attention two weeks ago, two teenage girls were kidnapped and taken to a California desert. The girls were rescued, but would have probably been killed if not for the AMBER Plan, which quickly spread news of the abduction to media outlets, and generated eyewitness tips for police. A plan similar to the one used in California is in place for the Washington D.C. area, due in part to the efforts of a Vienna couple.
Last September, Steve and Abby Shannon kicked off the Washington DC AMBER Plan. In California an AMBER Plan was used to identify the stolen Ford Bronco in which the girls were abducted. In that case radio and television announcements advised the public to be on the lookout for the kidnapper.
"Everybody wants to see the Bronco on the freeway," said Abby Shannon, who works with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "Everybody thinks, ‘that could be my child.’"
The California AMBER Plan was in place for just six days before the abduction, but the DC AMBER Plan, in place for almost a year, has not yet been put to use.
"You know its just a matter of time before another child is abducted," said Steve Shannon, assistant commonwealth attorney for Fairfax County. "We know we’re ready."
Steve Shannon, who prosecutes child sex crimes in Fairfax County, said a study by the State of Washington Attorney General’s Office found that in 74 percent of cases where a child is abducted and murdered, the murder happens within the first three hours after the abduction.
"So, time is of the essence," Shannon said. "It’s not real complicated. The theory is simple. We want to primarily alert the driving public with the thought that the abductor will be fleeing. We want people in cars to be looking around."
USING THE EMERGENCY alert system, information about the kidnapper is broadcast on radio an television stations throughout the area. Radio stations are asked to air the abduction announcements every 15 minutes for three hours after the abduction. Lt. Charlie Bond, supervisor of the Fairfax County Police Department’s Child Services Unit, helped develop the protocol system by which police notify local news outlets following an abduction.
"Any child abduction generates a lot of attention," Bond said. "But it might take an hour for us to be able to meet with the news media. This way, we get the message out right away."
The original AMBER Plan was developed in Arlington, Texas after nine-year-old Amber Hagerman was abducted and murdered. Similar plans then started popping up around the country, Steve Shannon said.
"The early plans were largely reactionary," Steve Shannon said. "There was an abduction in the community, then folks looked at what they could do."
When the Washington DC plan was put in place on Sept. 10, 2001, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children was also beginning an effort to foster AMBER Plans around the nation.
"They viewed us as sort of a pilot program," Steve Shannon said. "When we launched the program on Sept. 10, four states had AMBER Plans. Now there are 14 statewide plans."
Because it was introduced the day before Sept. 11, the Shannons said the plan did not initially receive a large amount of news coverage. After a string of recent abductions across the country, though, the couple hopes more media outlets will start to take notice of the plan. And Bond said the AMBER Plan, if well publicized, may even help to stop abductions before they start.
"The fact that the press takes an interest, and advertises we have an AMBER plan, may act as a deterrent," Bond said. "People can look at what happened in California and say that might happen here, too."
CURRENTLY THERE are 43 total AMBER plans in the United States, counting both statewide and regional plans.
The couple worked to create the Washington D.C. plan on a pro bono basis. They contacted the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, made up of 17 counties and towns in Washington D.C., Northern Virginia and Maryland. After police chiefs from throughout the region agreed to support the project, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children offered grant money to get the project off the ground.
"We wanted to bring child safety to our area, the Vienna-Fairfax area," Steve Shannon said. "It doesn’t take long to get a child out of Vienna, or even Fairfax County. You just get on Route 66."
After an individual calls a participating law enforcement agency to report an abduction, police investigate to make sure the abduction claim is valid. Then, if it is determined that an abduction has occurred, police will contact local media outlets, who spread news of the abduction among each other.
Although it has not been necessary to use the system, there have been two test broadcasts in Fairfax. The couple listened to one of the tests.
"We could hear them saying, ‘This is a test of the AMBER plan. If it had been an actual child abduction ...,’" Abby Shannon said.
TWENTY-TWO CHILDREN have been saved nationwide, due in part to the AMBER Plan, she said. Bond said 22 children may not seem like a large number, but noted that there have been very few cases of these types of abductions.
"This type of abduction makes up a very small percentage of all abductions," Bond said. "With this type, nationwide, there may be only about 300 a year. Most kids are abducted by a parent. But with this kind you see harm done to the children. You see murders. It’s a different type of offender profile."
"It’s a tremendous feeling every time a child’s life is saved," Steve Shannon said. "As a prosecutor, there is nothing more gratifying than standing up for children that are hurt. When my wife brought the idea to the community, it was only natural for me to say, ‘What can I do?’"
Bond said the Fairfax County Police Department is moving toward a community policing model that involves more public participation. He said the department would like to see more citizens like Steve and Abby Shannon.
"Steve and Abby saw an issue, and they did more than just say, ‘Fix it.’ They came armed with a solution."
For more information on the plan, visit www.dcamberplan.com.