Sleep or safety?

I spent a lot of time tossing and turning last Wednesday night which is why, at about 3:30 a.m., I heard my cell phone buzz. I had a quick look at it, saw that it was an Amber Alert about a child in Brantford, figured I would not be likely to see anything helpful to the investigation from my bed, and returned to tossing and turning.

Had I been asleep, I would not have heard the buzzing sound. However, if I had had the sound on my phone turned on, the alarm would surely have startled me significantly, even in my already-awake state. It definitely would have woken me up, had I been fortunate enough to be asleep.

I can appreciate how disruptive the Amber Alert alarm is to anyone who is caught unawares by it. I can also appreciate how ludicrous it seems to someone sawing logs in one part of the province to receive an alert about a missing child half a province away.

What I just don’t get is that some people — maybe even a lot of people — seem to have decided that a child’s safety is not important enough to warrant a little inconvenience to the rest of us.

“They’re there for a reason”

In last week’s incident, the toddler had been taken from her mother’s home by her father. Aided by a number of colleagues who distracted the mother at the front door, he entered the house through the back door and took the child. She was found, safe, in a nearby city a few hours later. The father has been charged with abduction, two counts of assault, uttering threats to cause death, uttering threats to destroy property and break and enter. Some of his colleagues also face criminal charges.

The alert was issued only after the police spoke briefly with the father, who refused to say where he was or return the child. Given the charges later laid against the father, it seems he was up to no good.

Do they work?

Six Amber Alerts have been issued in Ontario so far this year. Five resulted in the abducted child being returned home safely; one led to an arrest after the father was charged with killing his 11-year-old daughter. Would those five children have been returned home safely without the alert? We just don’t know, as we don’t know whether the Brantford child would have been returned quickly and safely without last week’s alert.

There isn’t enough data to do a comprehensive analysis of whether or not the alerts work, according to Queen’s University professor Lawrence Ashworth. A University of Nevada study from a number of years ago found that Amber Alerts were of less benefit than claimed by law enforcement officials.

However, Zach Miller, who was found as the direct result of an Amber Alert issued when he was kidnapped at the age of 10 in 2006, feels differently:

“If it wasn’t for a certain individual spotting that vehicle that abducted me, I wouldn’t be here.”

Saskatchewan police issued the first Amber Alert in that province after Miller went missing, and a passerby noticed the vehicle described in the alert, which led to Miller’s rescue.

Getting nasty

Police forces in various communities have been criticized for the annoyance to the general population when an Amber Alert is issued. Last week’s alert seems to have really brought out the complainers, one individual called the police emergency line 11 times in a short period of time, while others took to email to make their feelings known:

“Stop unnecessary and health damaging alerts to people who are asleep.”

“3 o’clock in the fucking morning . . . What the fuck are you thinking?”

“Perhaps if you do your job, we could sleep.”

I am pretty leery of handing over power to the police. They have, often, too much authority and too many tools and toys at their disposal, which get used against people improperly.

On the other hand, I work with women whose former partners, time and again, threaten to take their kids away. They say, when they pick the children up for an access weekend: “Say goodby because this is the last time you will ever see them.” Or they call while they have the children, saying: “I’m not going to bring them back this time.”

And, sometimes – as was the case in Brantford last week – they take the child and hit the road.

This is terrifying to a woman whose partner has abused her. She has doubts that he knows how to care for the children properly and believes his threat not to return them. And, as a case in Brampton earlier this year tragically confirmed, sometimes those fathers hurt and even kill their children after abducting them.

Balancing interests

When children, especially where there is a history of family violence and/or a family court proceeding underway, are taken by one parent or go missing, shouldn’t any error in responding fall on the side of over- not under- caution? Police have a strict protocol they must use before issuing an Amber Alert, so it’s not as though they send them out on a whim.

Maybe they get it wrong sometimes and issue an alert when none was necessary. Maybe, whether they get it wrong or right, we are inconvenienced by the sound of the alarm.

But we need to get real about this inconvenience. Most cell phones provide an option to turn the alarm function off. All of our phones let us mute the volume. Unless we need our phone for middle of the night emergencies, we don’t have to sleep with it on our bedside table.

We certainly do not need to tie up police emergency lines to complain about having received an alert.

I am happy to be interrupted by the sound of an Amber Alert alarm from time to time if it means children, whether abducted by an abusive parent or a stranger, are more likely to be found before serious harm is done to them.

One thought on “Sleep or safety?

  1. Good points Pamela. People need to understand how their phones work… and perhaps the option of a text message with a link to more info (without a notification sound) would mean that if we’d managed to sleep through the audible alert, we’d see the substance as soon as we turned to our devices in the morning….

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