Britain's Child Rescue Alert is to be reviewed after the procedure was triggered for the first time following the disappearance on Monday of a six-year-old girl who was later found sleeping under a cot four doors from her home.
Fears that Summer Haipule had been abducted led to the unprecedented police reaction, modelled on a US innovation designed to save kidnapped children before they come to any harm. There were reports that Summer had been dragged into a car, a prospect that prompted comparisons with other tragic abductions such as the killing of eight-year-old Sarah Payne in July 2000.
Sussex Police alerted television and radio stations, 80 police officers made house- to-house inquiries and specialist search advisers were brought in with sniffer dogs and helicopters. But Child Rescue Alert's maiden run was not withoutglitches. A text-message system to alert mobile phone users failed and the first television bulletin was not broadcast until three hours after the girl was reported missing.
But Summer had not been dragged into a "rusty" car by a man with "greasy" hair, as one witness testified. While the local television station rolled a ticker announcement of her disappearance across the screen, and officers and neighbours searched the Moulsecoomb estate, she was asleep in a friend's house.
It was only yesterday morning when Vicky Wilson, 25, went to wake her two sons that she heard a noise under her one-year-old baby's cot and found thegirl. Mrs Wilson walked into the street, yelling: "She's in my house, she's in my house" to a stunned media pack and the police were called.
Immediately, the spotlight of suspicion turned on Mrs Wilson and her husband, Darren, 27, a production assistant at a jewellery company.
As Summer's "distraught" parents, Minday Haipule, 34, and Dragon Anderson, 28, were reunited with their youngest daughter before she was taken for a medical check-up, Mr and Mrs Wilson were questioned by police. A few hours later, however, Sussex Police said: "We are satisfied that Summer was not harmed. We are also satisfied that during the 14 hours she went missing, she was with adults who were unaware of her presence."
The girl had left her home to visit a playmate, five-year-old Connor Wilson, in the early evening but found the family had gone out. When she failed to return home by 7.30pm her mother alerted police. By then Summer had returned to the friend's house and is believed to have crept in while the family were watching television. She went to play in Connor's room and later curled up under his brother's cot, clutching her comic book, and dozed off.
Detective Constable Amanda Stroud said the "bright and articulate" child had yet to speak about her adventure but appeared to be happy. The report of the abduction, made by a 13-year-old boy, was being looked into yesterday by police.
Ms Haipule paid tribute to the efforts of the police, press and neighbours. "I thank you so much from the bottom of my heart. I really mean that so much," she said.
For Mr and Mrs Wilson it was a matter of coming to terms with their 15 minutes of infamy. Mr Wilson said: "I knew everyone was out there thinking I was the bad one. This really was just one big misunderstanding. How she crept in we just don't know. It was a great big game of hide-and-seek which turned into a giant police search. My five-year-old son, Connor, knew she was there all along but I think he was too scared to tell us."
While Sussex Police praised the "superb response" that its first Child Rescue Alert illicited from the media, it acknowledged that improvements could be made. "We will, of course, be reviewing the use of the system and any lessons that can be learnt will be acted upon," said a spokeswoman.
HOW THE ALERT SYSTEM WORKS
Sussex police was the first UK force to launch a Child Rescue Alert. The scheme, which is used only for children under 16 or who are believed to be in serious danger, works by informing the public, especially in the local area, as swiftly as possible when a child has gone missing.
This is done by interrupting television and radio programmes with news flashes, informing other media outlets and sending text messages to subscribers.
The system was launched in the US in response to an incident seven years ago, in which a nine-year-old girl was abducted and killed. Amber Hagerman was out riding her bicycle in Arlington, Texas, when a neighbour saw the girl being dragged into a pick-up truck.
Despite an extensive search by police, and countless television and radio broadcasts, the girl was found dead in a nearby drainage ditch four days later.
Her kidnapping and murder remains unsolved but it inspired the Amber Alert system to help find abducted children by seeking instant help from the public. It has now been developed across 15 states in the US and is credited with saving the lives of at least 37 children.
Detective Chief Superintendent Jeremy Paine, of Sussex Police, visited the USA and was so impressed that in November last year the force became the first in Europe to launch Child Rescue Alert.
The scheme, which is only used for children under 16 or who are believed to be in serious danger, works by informing the public, especially in the local area, as swiftly as possible when a child is kidnapped. This is done by interrupting television and radio programmes with news flashes, informing other media outlets and sending text messages to subscribers.Reuse content