Amber Alerts – Important Advice for Parents


Written by Veronika Bradley, Editor, Children's Safety Association of Canada – August 28, 2012 and Republished by Diligencia Investigative Reporting – April 2019

I can't imagine how parents feel when their child goes missing.  The notion to me is unperceivable and ineffable.  It's a situation that I just can't get my head around – and yet more than 50,000 children are reported missing in Canada every year.

Going through such a harrowing experience inexorably demands that when you are at your weakest, you must be your strongest.  There is no choice.  I can only surmise that your heart and mind are held captive and while you try to recall and hold on to the last words you shared with your child, you are in a state of emotional ransom.  The unknown disparity is the length of time you will be asking yourself, "What went wrong?" and, "How could I allow this to happen?" while your heart searches for something – anything – that you could have possibly forgotten or missed.

"Giving your child knowledge to obtain practical skills and to teach them how to look after themselves is as important as teaching them to write and read."

Sgt. Jean-Yves McCann, Sergent Spécialiste Coordonnateur provincial de l'alerte AMBER Service conseil aux enquêtes Sûreté du Québec.
August 28, 2012

I recently had an opportunity to speak with Sgt. Jean-Yves McCann, the Provincial Coordinator for Amber Alerts at the Service Conseil aux Enquêtes, Sûreté du Québec.

Veronika Bradley (VB): As Provincial Coordinator for Amber Alert, what are your responsibilities?

Sergent Spécialiste, Jean-Yves McCann, Coordonnateur provincial de l'alerte AMBER Service conseil aux enquêtes Sûreté du Québec.  Photo courtesy of

Sgt. Jean-Yves McCann:  A large part of my job is educating the public and police force.  I train and educate Police Officers, first responders and '911' dispatchers to react as fast as possible.  I maintain partnerships with other jurisdictions in Canada and the United States and I've had discussions with European countries that have Amber Alerts, (even though they are not called Amber Alerts).  Maintaining and developing partnerships with the Amber Alert plan and continually looking for new possibilities is also a big part of my position.

VB: So, your job involves ongoing communication regarding Amber Alerts and Child Safety on a global platform?

Sgt. Jean-Yves McCann:  The Department of Justice oversees and maintains the global platform and they're 'kind of' the godfathers of Amber Alert with an international department that helps other countries to develop their own plan – countries such as Greece and Portugal and two years ago, they assisted Mexico to develop a plan as well.  The states north of Mexico have many issues with child abductions but because Mexico did not have an Amber Alert plan, they couldn't launch an Amber Alert.  Mexico now has an Amber Alert system after three years of planning.

VB:  What is the hardest part of your job?

Sgt. Jean-Yves McCann:  I don't think my job is that hard.  When an Amber Alert has been issued that's the hardest part and not just for me but for every police responder and partner to react as fast as we can.  We're expecting the worst and time goes by so quickly.  The numbers and statistics are incredibly alarming for some cases.  I'm always anxious and ask myself if we reacted properly and expeditiously each time we face a possibility of Amber Alert for child abduction.  The question in my head is, "Are we going to be too late?"

VB: What's the biggest mistake parents make when their child is missing?

Sgt. Jean-Yves McCann: Statistics show us that parents do not call the police fast enough.  Parents think that the police department is too busy with other cases so they call us after a great length of time has passed.  The statistics in the United States show us that 40% of children who were abducted were killed before the police were even notified by the parents that their child was missing.  Is that the fault of the parent?  Is that the fault of the police?  Is that the fault of television telling people to wait 24 hours before calling the police even though your child is 13 years old? 

Occasionally police assume that some cases will turn out to be runaways and parents assume this as well.  Parents do not assume the worst.  We try to teach parents that if their child is missing, don't assume that they are lost.  This could be an abduction, and so at the very least, call us and we'll help you check out the situation.

VB: I think parents don't call the police as quickly as they should because they do not want to consider or face the possibility that something serious might have occurred to their child.  

Sgt. Jean-Yves McCann:  Yes, I totally agree with you.  Even when a child is not missing, that mindset is the 'norm' for many parents.  They hesitate to talk about personal safety.  A child is spontaneous so they don't want to frighten the child.  Giving your child knowledge to obtain practical skills and to teach them how to look after themselves is as important as teaching them to write and read.

VB:  What proactive measures can parents teach their children should they be approached by a stranger?

Sgt. Jean-Yves McCann:  Well, first of all, in regards to the 'stranger' theory, I think that children are really, really scared of strangers because of the knowledge that is given by their parents but sometimes they should be aware that some abductions or sexual assaults occur with someone they know.  Parents are focusing a lot on strangers but should take into consideration that the abductor could very well be someone that they know and that their child knows.  In Quebec, the last child that was abducted by a stranger took place in 2008 so there are not that many cases of strangers abducting children in Canada but when there is a stranger abduction, we need to react very quickly.

VB:  So what you are saying is that if a child is approached, nine times out of ten it will most likely be someone they know rather than a stranger, and that all children should know when they are being approached by a person displaying inappropriate behaviour and/or bad intentions.

Sgt. Jean-Yves McCann:  Yes, parents should teach their children this knowledge so that they can protect themselves and know how to react.  The parents should go to your website because the information is there but sometimes the parent's just don't get it.  They think about stranger abductions but don't take into consideration that someone they know could have the same mal-intent against their children.  They are hesitant to talk to their children about inappropriate behaviour from someone they know because they do not want to scare their children with the possibility.  Does that mean we shouldn't talk to our children about a fire evacuation plan for our house because we don't want to scare them with the thought of fire?  The parents will talk to their children about a fire evacuation plan because it is important that they know how to react and protect themselves.  Why should this be any different?  Children need to receive important safety information from their parents.

My daughter is four years old and she knows about Amber Alert.  I don't talk about abduction but I do talk about missing children or a child that is lost.  As a parent, you have to use appropriate words of communication according to your child's age so that they have a clear but undisturbed understanding.

VB:  What personality traits do predators look for in a child?

Sgt. Jean-Yves McCann: That's a good question but I'm not a specialist in behavioural profiling.  Predators use a variety of ways to lure a child.  The predator will look for a weaker child – a child that is more timid or even a child that is poor where the predator can capitalize on his ploys with gifts and other material things - but abduction profiles are quite different. 

Even though I am not a specialist let's talk about an unsolved case - Cédrika Provencher, a-nine-year-old girl from Trois-Rivieres who was abducted on July 31, 2007).  She was really spontaneous, sociable, willing to help and she was kind of a victim for her willingness to help the abductor who said he was looking for his dog.  She was walking around asking people if they saw a dog of this description and stated that she was trying to help a man who lost his dog.  That's how she was lured and approached.  She wasn't weak. She was nine years old.

Sexual predators who abduct are not looking for 15 or 16 year-old teenagers who are more mature and less naïve, so unfortunately the 8, 9, 10, and 11-year-old children are really at risk.  I don't have the statistics but I do hear a lot about children between the ages of 8 to 12, even children aged 6 to 7 who were abducted.  Sexual predators go for girls and boys from that age group.

VB:  Are there more girls than boys that are abducted by sexual predators?

Sgt. Jean-Yves McCann:  No, not much.  We have statistics for the United States, which shows us that there is very little difference for abductors choosing a sexual preference.  Amber Alerts can sometimes include parental abductions where there is imminent danger for the life of the children, so it's kind of half-and-half.

VB: According to the 2006 United States abduction statistics 9 out of every 10 abductions were female.

Sgt. Jean-Yves McCann:  Canada had 68 Amber Alerts counting the one that took place in Brampton (Peel County), Ontario on August 23, 2012 involving two boys.  There were more girls abducted than boys – 60% girls and 40% boys, and out of the 68 abductions most of the children were recovered except for three children who were deceased.  It is important to note that there was more than one child involved in many of the Amber Alerts.  Out of the 68 Amber Alerts more than 90 children were involved and so 87 of those 90 children were recovered.  Amber Alerts are quite a success story in Canada.  United States has more deceased children than Canada but they have more Amber Alerts so our percentage of rescued children is a little bit higher.

VB:  Have you noticed a decline or increase in Amber Alerts in Canada in the past ten years?

Sgt. Jean-Yves McCann:  Amber Alerts have been issued in Alberta since 2002 and most of the other provinces since 2003 with one exception in 2004.  In the 8 to 9 years that Amber Alerts have been issued in Canada there is an increase in Ontario at about 30 abductions so I don't think there is a decline.  We have an increase in parental abductions but that does not involve Amber Alerts.  We have many requests for Amber Alerts for parental abductions but the criteria of imminent danger for the child's life are not there.  If a parent leaves the country with their child they are not going to harm their child – but then on the other hand some parental abductions involve life-threatening issues and so we activate an Amber Alert.  In Quebec, 7 out of 8 Amber Alerts involved parental abductions, and for Canada about 75% of all Amber Alerts involve parental abductions unfortunately.  We have at least 100 parental open file abduction cases in Quebec every year.  We have maybe one Amber Alert out of 100 because the criteria are not there.  Abduction is there, a child is involved, but we don't fear for the child's life, so we don't activate an Amber Alert.

VB:  When did the word "abduction" replace the word "kidnapping" and why did it change

Sgt. Jean-Yves McCann: I think kidnapping involves ransom and in the 1970's and 80's it was more of a trend to have a hostage for ransom.  When a person goes to a bank, leaves with the Manager and then asks for ransom - that's kidnapping.  Although in regards to using the word 'kidnapping' there was an instance where an Amber Alert was issued when a father abducted his daughter.  The next day, after the daughter was safely recovered by the police the media reported, "…finally, it wasn't a kidnapping because there was a family bond between the victim, who was the daughter and the abductor, 

who was the father..."  So, in the mind of the media they decided that because it wasn't a stranger who took the child, they couldn't call it a kidnapping.  The word 'kidnapping' is not in the Criminal Code - we use the word 'abduction'.

VB:  Why do criteria for issuing Amber Alerts vary from province to province?

Sgt. Jean-Yves McCann: There is not much of a variance from province to province when issuing Amber Alerts.  British Columbia, Quebec, and Ontario adopted basic criteria for Amber Alerts initiated by the United States and they are as follows:

  1. a child under the age of 18 is missing,
  2. we have reasonable ground to believe that the child was abducted,
  3. we believe that the child is in imminent danger of serious physical injury, and
  4. issuing an Amber Alert will help us to locate the suspect, the vehicle, and/or the child.

The remaining provinces added an extension to the criteria that states, "The victim is a child, or a person of proven physical or mental disability."  The wording could vary for the criteria, i.e. since the last abduction in Woodstock, Ontario of Victoria Stafford, Amber Alert now has 'guidelines' instead of 'criteria'.  Criteria # 1 and # 2 are put into one guideline in Ontario but they are basically the same.  So let’s say there is an Amber Alert in New Brunswick where a 17-year-old woman is abducted, the police fear for her life and they have reasonable ground that the suspect and the victim are heading to Quebec - we would issue an Amber Alert.  But now, let's say there's a 33-year-old male who is mentally ill who is not abducted and although we fear for the life of the victim, it does not fit the criteria and therefore we would not issue an Amber Alert. 

Quebec and Ontario have a 'Reciprocity Agreement' (formal contract agreeing to share information) for Amber Alerts, which was signed in 2003 by the Provincial Ministers of Public Safety.  In 2009, Quebec and Ontario signed an inter-governmental MoU (Memorandum of Understanding) enabling collaboration with any province starting with Manitoba and ending in British Columbia wherein any province could issue an Amber Alert in succession.

VB:  Are Amber Alerts issued in the Yukon, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut?

Sgt. Jean-Yves McCann:  No, they are not but at each National Amber Alert Conference they are always represented, and while they are trained for Amber Alerts the program in each territory is a work in progress.  The RCMP is working on it.

VB:  How often does DNA and fingerprinting play a role in locating a child, and in what circumstance?

Sgt. Jean-Yves McCann: DNA does not help to locate a child rather identify a child in the worst cases.  Fingerprints are as useful as DNA but DNA offers us more possibilities.  Let's say we found blood at a specific location and we have a profile of a child whose case we have been working on for a month and there's a match.  Will this information help us locate a child?  What we can say is that at one point we know the child has 

been here and lost blood and that clue could lead us to the child.  DNA is used when a child is recovered or rescued and we need to identify that child.  There was a case in Missouri where a 14-year-old boy was recovered four years after being abducted.  He was found when he helped to lure a new victim with the 

abductor.  So how can we be sure that this child is the same child that was abducted four years ago?.  The DNA and fingerprints could help the FBI to identify and rescue the child that was abducted four years ago.

VB:  In September 2011, you were in Dakar, Senegal (Africa) where you participated with other experts regarding child safety and children's rights.  Can you tell me about that experience?

Sgt. Jean-Yves McCann:  Yes.  The International Bureau for Child Rights (IBCR) is located in Montreal and a member of 'Francopol' as well.  

Francopol, an organization established in 2002 and born from the initiative of the Department of International Relations and Protocol of the Sûreté du Québec, and the Training Branch of the French National Police, is an apolitical association whose members support the development of democratic policing, and professional and service-oriented citizens.  Les membres de FRANCOPOL s'engagent à respecter la diversité culturelle et à mettre de l'avant les plus hauts standards en matière d'éthique, de démocratie et de respect des droits humain  Their mission is to undertake and respect cultural diversities and to implement the highest standards of ethics, democracy, and respect for human rights.  Ils se dévouent à faire avancer la recherche, les réflexions et les initiatives qui profiteront à l'ensemble de la communauté policière francoph

 Francopol promotes the development and dissemination of education and teaching tools in French wherein all Les documents et informations sont mis à la disposition des membres gratuitement puisque FRANCOPOL n'est pas un réseau favorisant la commercialisation de produits et sedocumentation and information are available to members free of charge.

IBCR were developing a training program for western and central African countries that speak French to train and educate Police Officers about children's rights and women's rights as well.  It was quite an experience because we exchanged ideas, knowledge and built a framework for future training.  These African countries have some big issues in regards to children's rights, for instance, a child under the age of 12 cannot be considered as a witness and also cannot be charged with criminal offences.  As well In Canada we cannot accuse or charge a minor (child under the age of 12) with a criminal offence, for instance, if a child starts a fire, which is a criminal offence, and he/she is 11 years old, he/she will not be charged.  Children under the age of 12 and 13 in Canada are considered vulnerable.  By law in Senegal, if a 10-year-old boy watches his Mom being killed by his father, he is not considered or respected as a credible witness and therefore his statement will not be taken.  

There's a lot work that must continue in regards to children's rights in Africa.  While the United Nations were involved in this initiative in Senegal and later in Niger, Francopol offered many, many resources towards the much needed development and education.  About 10% of the police officers do not know how to write therefore cannot produce police reports and people are arrested verbally without any paperwork.

I was invited to participate in this initiative in Senegal to provide resources, knowledge and tools made available by the Québec Provincial Police to facilitate the developmental of a training program.  I was in good company.  Teachers of technique policièrs, police academies, University professors, and a judge from Australia also participated in the development of this training program to assist the police in children's and women's rights.

VB:  You received Wired Safety's 'Child Safety Leadership Award' in 2011.  How did that come about?

Sgt. Jean-Yves McCann:  Four Amber Alert Coordinators were invited by Mrs. Parry Aftab, one of the five members of the Safety Advisory Committee for Facebook and founder of Wired Safety to receive this award.  Parry Aftab is a lawyer, child advocate and expert in all aspects of cyberlaw, best practices, cyberbullying and cyberharassment, cybercrime and privacy.  She is also a risk-management and best practices consultant and advisor to the leaders of the Internet and digital technology industries..

Mrs. Aftab is the wife of Allan McCullough, president of Child Safety Research & Innovation Centre (CSRIC) formerly of Miramichi, New Brunswick but now resides in P.E.I.  Parry Aftab and Allan McCullough helped bring Facebook and the Amber Alert team together by developing and integrating conditions and parameters into the Amber Alert Facebook page that would better protect children, such as the avoidance of commercial advertisements, and 'comments' section because it would become a communication management issue. 

Parry Aftab said that our Amber Alert Facebook pages were a great success in Canada especially within five provinces and that is how we became the recipients of the 'Child Safety Leadership' award in 2011, which we received in New York.

VB:  Parents can now subscribe to receive Amber Alerts on their cells, Twitter, and Facebook accounts, and subscribe to 'Child Alert', an iPhone App where they can create child identification records for their children.  All the links will be listed at the end of this interview and as well I contacted the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (CWSA) and they created a bilingual banner for our website so that our readers can click on the banner and subscribe to receive Amber Alerts.

Sgt. Jean-Yves McCann:  That's great.  That's exactly what I am asking for.  I really appreciate it.

VB:  You're welcome.  One final question.  What's the best part of your job?

Sgt. Jean-Yves McCann:  If we have to issue an Amber Alert and in the process, we are able to rescue the child safely, then seeing the smiles and relief on the parent's faces is the best part of my job - but that's the end of a sad story.  If all the work that I, my partners and colleagues are doing, can save one child – that is the best part of my job.

VB:  I believe that Canada is a much safer place for children because you're in it.  On behalf of all the parents in Canada thank you for your dedication and professionalism in doing your job and thank you so much for allowing me this interview.   Sgt. Jean-Yves McCann, it was a pleasure talking with you.

Sgt. Jean-Yves McCann:  I appreciate the invitation to do this interview and all the work you are doing for the children and the Amber Alert plan in Canada.

When is AMBER Alert activated?

AMBER Alerts are intended for the most serious and time critical abduction cases and not for cases involving runaways or parental abduction, except in life-threatening situations.  An AMBER Alert is activated when:

  • Police have confirmed that an abduction has taken place
  • The victim is a child, or of proven physical or mental disability
  • There is reason to believe the victim is in danger of serious physical injury
  • There is information available that, if broadcasted to the public, could assist in the safe recovery of the victim.

What 'You' Can Do to Help

If you hear an AMBER Alert being issued:

  • Watch for the child, suspect, and/or vehicle description.
  • Give information on the location of the abduction and a description of the victim, suspect, and/or any vehicle involved.
  • Immediately report any findings by calling 9-1-1 or the telephone number included in the alert.

'Child Alert' - Create Your Child's Personal Identification Card

The first few hours following the disappearance of a child are crucial.  Reacting quickly can significantly increase the chances of finding a child, however, parents in such a situation are usually in a state of anxiety and panic and therefore incapable of giving accurate information.

Avis de Recherche (, a television channel devoted to public safety, has launched Child Alert, an iPhone APP that allows parents to create and save a digital profile including photos of their children directly on your cell phone.  You carry it with you wherever you go and in the event of an emergency being prepared means everything, especially when it comes to the safety and well being of your children.

With Child Alert you can instantly email your child’s profile to the proper authorities thereby gaining valuable time and permitting authorities to treat the emergency much more expeditiously.  The Child Alert data sheet features height, weight, hair and eye colour, and distinguishing features, as well as photos of your child taken from various angles.  The application will prompt you to update the stored information at a frequency of your choice so that your child's profile remains current.  

The launch of the Child Alert app has been enthusiastically received by the national police community.  ''Our goal at the Centre is to protect and save children's lives.  The more tools we have the more we can fulfil our mandate, explains Monique Perras, S/Sgt, and NCO i/c National Missing Children's Services, of the RCMP.  We want to congratulate Avis de for their initiative and their support.  In working together we can achieve so much more!''

Sergeant Jean-Yves McCann, coordinator of the AMBER alert program for the Sûreté du Québec, agrees wholeheartedly: "When an AMBER alert is activated, time is crucial and every minute counts - so having an electronic ID profile on a cell phone seems like an extremely valuable tool.  Clearly we will be able to save a lot of time by broadcasting accurate details of the child and broadcasting photos will greatly increase our chances of success.  I would encourage parents in Canada to use this application, which could become a kind of police insurance if your child ever disappears or is abducted."

The Child Alert app can be downloaded for $0.99 and for every purchase, will assist organizations that help families look for missing children in Canada.  The channel will donate a quarter of all funds raised to the Child Find Organization and Enfant-Retour Québec.  Please click on to download and create your child's Personal Identification Card now!  Spread the word!  This is a very valuable tool!

Let's Not Forget 'Amber' Hagerman

On Saturday, January 13, 1996, Amber Hagerman aged nine, her brother Ricky aged five, and their mother Donna, visited their grandmother and grandfather's home in Arlington, Texas.  Amber and Ricky asked if they could go for a quick ride on their bicycles and their grandmother, Glenda Whitson said, "OK, but just go once around the block."   Amber and Ricky peddled their bicycles to E. Abram Street and went down the grocery store ramp.  

Ricky, wanting to follow his grandmother's instructions, decided to go back home, and when he arrived, his grandfather, Jimmie Whitson, asked why Amber was not with him.  Jimmie Whitson sent Ricky back to get Amber but when Ricky returned, he told his grandfather that he could not find her.

"...from the time Amber left the house to when '911' was called only 8 minutes had lapsed..."

Glenda Whitson
Amber Hagerman's grandmother

Jimmie Whitson got in his truck, and drove towards the parking lot where he spotted a police car.  Once there, the police officer told Jimmie that a man nearby heard a child screaming and saw a young girl being carried into a pickup truck and then immediately called '911'.  Jimmie recognized Amber's bicycle and knew instantly that his granddaughter was abducted.  From the time Amber left the house to when '911' was called – only 8 minutes had lapsed.

Family members appeared on television begging for Amber's safe return.  Police theorized that this was an impetuous crime of opportunity since Amber did not have an established pattern of riding her bicycle at that time of day.  By chance, a local TV station had been working on a story about Donna Hagerman's struggle to get off welfare and when they heard of her daughter's abduction, the station released a videotape of Amber to other media outlets.  The abduction was front-page news in Texas and Amber's image became so widely known during the investigation that the local police chief would call Amber, "Arlington's child."

Four days after the abduction a man walking his dog spotted Amber's naked body in a creek bed near an apartment complex in North Arlington.  Three weeks after the abduction, a task force released a psychological profile to the media hoping that someone would recognize the description.  Police pursued over 5,500 leads in the 18 months following the murder.  In the summer of 1997, after investing more than one million dollars in the Amber Hagerman investigation, the Arlington police disbanded the task force.  Amber's abductor was never found.

A man from Dallas asked this question: "When a child is abducted and each minute matters, why can't the police and the media get together to inform the public with the same urgency of, say, a weather warning about a tornado or a hurricane?"  Radio and television executives in the Metroplex adopted the idea, and the Dallas Amber Plan was initiated in July 1997.  Under the plan, police provide broadcasters with timely information about abductions including photos and descriptions so word could be spread immediately to the public.  Sixteen months later, the Amber Plan proved its worth.

Sandra Fallis, a babysitter with a drug problem, disappeared with an 8-week-old infant.  An alert went out, and Fallis was apprehended within 90 minutes when a driver who heard the alert spotted the woman's truck.  The child was returned safely. 

Houston set up its own Amber Plan in 2000, and two years later Texas instituted a state wide Amber Alert.  That same year the U.S. Justice Department began coordinating the program for states and cities.  Today, all 50 states and hundreds of cities have Amber Alert plans.


Additional Resources

For additional information, Diligencia Investigative Reporting recommends the following articles:

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Diligencia Investigative Reporting - 230 Million Children are Not Registered at Birth:  Open Door for Child Exploitation

Diligencia Investigative Reporting - High Suicide Rates Among Children and Teenagers Globally

Diligencia Investigative Reporting - Chinese Parents Can Sue Neglectful Children

Diligencia Investigative Reporting - London Health Sciences Centre:  81-year-old Man Held Against His Will for 13 Days

Diligencia Investigative Reporting - Mental Health Costs and Burden:  Canada and the United States

Diligencia Investigative Reporting - Liam Neeson Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF: End Violence Against Children

Diligencia Investigative Reporting - National Reviews Needed for Children and Youth Deaths Across Canada

Diligencia Investigative Reporting - UN Report:  More Women and Children are Surviving Today

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