Three-year-old Kienan Hebert remains as carefree as always. He was snatched from his home one night in September and held in captivity for four days, but his dad can detect no signs of trauma or stress.
Paul Hebert believes an Amber Alert played a pivotal role in keeping Kienan alive and helping to force an end to the ordeal. As he looks back on the incident, Mr. Hebert summed up his assessment of the provincewide advisory in one word: spectacular.
Kienan was taken on Sept. 7 from his home in Sparwood, B.C., 20 minutes from the Alberta boundary. The RCMP issued an Amber Alert nine hours after he went missing. The little boy was returned to the family home unharmed four days later.
The Amber Alert was only one part of a massive effort involving 60 investigators and more than 500 people who searched the wooded, mountainous area on foot, by horse and in ATVs, motor vehicles, boats and aircraft.
But Mr. Hebert believes Amber Alert was integral to the efforts to bring Kienan back home safely. "It gave [the kidnapper]no chance. He knew he was Canada's most wanted. That made him pretty worried. He could not even go get groceries," Mr. Hebert said.
"Everybody knew what was going on. That locked [the abductor]down to wherever he was at. It definitely did help in our case," he said.
Some have been critical of the timing for issuing the Amber Alert. The advisory came nine hours after Kienan went missing. But Mr. Hebert says he understands why police had to ensure his little boy was missing before issuing an Amber Alert.
Police had a suspect and they had to try to locate him before issuing an advisory. "They did their due diligence," he said. "Once they realized what was going on, the Amber Alert was announced almost immediately. I'm satisfied with what was done."
Before the Amber Alert program was introduced, an abductor could move about in public much more easily. Police would release some information about a missing child that the media would report, often hours later. Families and friends would try drawing attention to the missing person by plastering posters on street posts.
Since its inception in B.C. six years ago, the Amber Alert program has a perfect track record. An Amber Alert has been declared 14 times since 2005 and the children have been located in every incident, Sergeant Dawn Parker, RCMP co-ordinator of the Amber Alert program in B.C.., said in an interview
Although Amber Alerts are usually not solely responsible for a child being found, Sgt. Parker said she was aware of a few cases where the program could claim full credit.
An Amber Alert puts pressure on an abductor, she said. "They will know everyone is looking for them … knows what they look like, knows what the vehicle looks like, knows what the child looks like. So there are not many places to run," she said.
Police currently have around 650 "partners" who are contacted by e-mail or by fax when an advisory is issued. They in turn contact their employees or others. Sgt. Parker could not even guess how many people receive the message. "It's huge," she said. "As soon as it hits someone on their iPhone, BlackBerry, Twitter or Facebook, it's all over the place."
The Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association has been encouraging Canadians since mid-2010 to sign up for free Amber Alerts that will arrive as text messages on their smartphones.
The potential reach of the program is daunting. During September, the month in which Kienan was kidnapped, 6.7-billion person-to-person text messages were sent in Canada, approximately 224 million messages per day.
The wireless Amber Alert has just begun to penetrate the Canadian market of 26 million cellphones. So far, the program has only 27,000 Canadian subscribers. The program is available in all provinces and territories in Canada, with registration at no cost, at www.WirelessAMBER.ca or by texting AMBER to 26237.
The Missing Children's Society of Canada has gone one step further. Poynt, a popular app for smartphones that uses GPS technology to locate businesses, has been modified to push out a notification of a missing child to users in a specific geographic area. Touching the screen takes the user to the mobile version of the society's website where a profile of the child and photo are available.
Poynt has one million users in Canada. "We're sure this app will bring children home," said Becky Scheer, communications manager for the children's society.
WHAT IT IS
An Amber Alert is an advisory of a missing child sent out in the most serious abduction cases in an effort to ensure that kidnapping does not turn into murder. Around 60 have been issued in Canada since the first provincewide program was introduced in 2002.
HOW IT WORKS
Only police can initiate an Amber Alert. Specific criteria must be met before the advisories are sent out. The criteria differ by province. In B.C., the missing child must be under 18, in imminent danger and taken without parental consent or knowledge. A high-quality description of the victim, the abductor and possibly the vehicle must be available. Also, the police must reasonably expect the child could be returned or the abductor apprehended during the alert. An alert will not be sent out for runaways or for a parental abduction.
The police have 650 partners who receive an Amber Alert. Radio and television stations interrupt programming to alert the public. Buses with digital signage, highway message boards and lottery terminals carry the message. Free text messages are sent to subscribers on smartphones. The advisory is also sent to several companies and associations such as trucking firms and the real estate board, as well as Canada Border Services Agency, BC Transit and BC Ferries. The alert is then re-sent to employees to be copied and posted across the province.