Experts Say New Alert System Needed in EU Child Searches | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 27.08.2007
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Experts Say New Alert System Needed in EU Child Searches

The EU has a lot of experience in dealing with cross-border problems. So it should come as no surprise that its efforts to solve child abduction cases should focus on cooperation and standardized search procedures.

Madeleine McCann's parents

Madeleine McCann's parents have spread the word with their own media campaign

There have probably been as many column inches written about the efforts of Kate and Gerry McCann to find their missing daughter Madeleine as the investigation into the alleged abduction itself.

The campaign by the missing four-year-old's family and friends to keep Maddy's face in the media has drawn both praise and criticism since it swung into action in the days after her disappearance from the McCanns' apartment at the Praia da Luz resort in Portugal on May 3.

Whether one admires or criticizes the McCanns' use of the media in the search for their daughter, one thing cannot be ignored: The media strategy has resulted in an unprecedented level of coverage regarding a child's abduction.

But should a family have to create its own rolling news channel to keep the world informed of the efforts to find a missing child? Could the creation of the "Find Madeleine" campaign also be a reaction to inadequate international search procedures?

Incompatibilities obvious

Madeleine McCann's parents holding up their daughter's clothes

Gerry and Kate McCann gave the public vital information

One of the most debated aspects of the McCann investigation has been the extensive criticism of the Portuguese police. Critics of the Policia Judiciaria have highlighted the differences between Portuguese methods and those employed in the search for a child in Madeleine's native Britain and other EU countries.

In particular, the police have been accused of failing to distribute information for hours after Maddy vanished, for delays in passing a description to border or marine police and for refusing offers of help from international experts for almost three months.

The Portuguese have defended themselves by saying that under Article 86 of the country's penal code information must not be released, apart from in exceptional circumstances, while the criminal investigation is still taking place.

While similar types of secrecy laws regarding ongoing police investigations exist in most European countries, information covered by these laws tends to apply to evidence and situations that need to be kept under wraps in the search for a suspect. Few prevent the broadcast or distribution of information regarding a missing child.

EU-wide alert system?

police officers

Police cooperation across the EU is improving slowly

The McCann case has raised new calls for a Europe-wide response procedure in the case of abducted children. While the European Commission is already trying to increase cooperation in cross-border investigations, there are currently no plans to standardize the response in the case of a missing child.

"We have been told that there are no plans at the moment for an EU-wide alert system," said Carolyn Bouchard from independent child protection agency SafeHands. "The level of police cooperation is slowly improving and most current systems work well on a national level, but we continue to push for an efficient network across the continent."

Delphine Moralis, the acting secretary general for the European Federation for Missing and Sexually Exploited Children, was more specific.

"Based on the experience of its members (21 non-governmental organizations in 14 EU countries) when dealing with missing children cases across the EU, Missing Children Europe advocates the need to develop alert support systems for cases of child abductions or life threatening disappearances of children in countries where no system exists," she said. "We also recommend the development of co-ordination procedures and interconnection schemes between existing systems, such as the ones in Belgium, France, Germany, Greece and the UK."

The closest thing Europe currently has to a standardized response is the AMBER Alert, a procedure imported from the United States, although not all countries in the EU use it.

AMBER alerts a tried and tested response

demonstrators at the trial of Belgium's child molester Marc Dutroux

The public is a vaulable resource in any abduction case

AMBER alerts are issued by police when four main criteria of a child abduction case are satisfied: when a child under 16 goes missing; when the child is believed kidnapped, when a senior police officer fears that death or serious harm may come about, and when the case has sufficient descriptive details, such as photographs of the child or suspected abductor.

The alerts are then broadcast to the public via radio and television stations, immediately interrupting scheduled broadcasting to report the missing child. The alerts are also shown on electronic motorway signs and sent to email accounts, mobile phones and wireless devices of registered search volunteers.

"A coordinated AMBER Alert system in Europe would be hugely beneficial because one of the most critical parts of an abduction investigation is informing the public," said Robert Hoever, from the US National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). "It would require each country to have a designated AMBER facilitator and for all the facilitators to meet and plan together a memorandum of understanding as to how they would work together."

Cross-border structures needed for success

An EU passport control point

Investigations must cross borders seemlessly to succeed

Hoever believes that having a similar system and a coordinator in every EU member state would greatly improve cross-border child abduction investigations in the bloc.

"Contact person 'A' would be responsible for putting the alert out in his or her own country and if information suggested the child had crossed the border, then 'A' calls 'B' and the same system kicks in," he said.

However, according to Hoever, bringing in a standardized AMBER alert-type system in Europe would only work if other investigative strategies were already in place.

"Before you have a standardized alert system, you have to address the cross-border problems. You can't try and solve differences in police procedure during a case; you waste time and endanger the child further. These strategies between countries should be in place first."

Delphine Moralis agreed.

"Any system developed at EU level will have to start by looking at what already exists at the national level," she said. "Many questions remain to be analyzed, both regarding the procedures and regarding technical implementation of a system."

A painful lesson

So did the inadequacy of existing structures hinder the search for Madeleine McCann in the first hours of her disappearance?

"In Portugal, Missing Children Europe has an NGO member called Instituto de Apoio à Criança I.A.C., Lisbon, which launched a hotline for missing children on May 25, 2004," Moralis said. "However, due to a lack of financial means and political support, no fully developed 'child alert' or 'amber alert system' has been launched in Portugal yet."

She said a good communication and coordination among existing systems as well as child search programs in countries which don't currently have them could well have made a difference in the case of Madeleine McCann.

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