Police to unveil new child abduction alert system

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The Independent Online

Police will unveil a new nationwide alert system for enlisting the public to help them rescue abducted children next month.

Officials have been working behind the scenes for months to iron out bureaucratic hurdles to broadcasting sensitive information.

The new network, comparable to the amber alert system in the United States, will be compatible with other European countries for the first time.

As a result a continent-wide alert could be issued in circumstances where youngsters may be taken across national borders.

Kate and Gerry McCann have campaigned for such a system to be introduced since their daughter Madeleine disappeared in Portugal in May 2007.

They emphasised how the first hours after an abduction are crucial and that an alert would spread information more quickly.

Although some 100,000 children are reported missing to police each year, senior officers expect the national alert to be used extremely rarely.

The upgraded child rescue alert system will use new computer software to handle the anticipated deluge of calls from concerned members of the public.

Similar alerts in France provoked 600 calls within the first three hours, leaving investigators struggling to prioritise information.

Regional and national television and radio stations will broadcast messages, in some cases interrupting scheduled programmes.

Those behind the system also hope to eventually use internet and text messaging as well as motorway information signs.

The system is being co-ordinated by the National Police Improvement Agency (NPIA) and any national abduction will be led by Greater Manchester Police.

Chief Constable Peter Neyroud, who heads the NPIA, said the new alert will be launched on May 25, International Missing Children's Day.

He said: "Child Rescue Alert is a powerful tool in the fight against child abduction in the UK.

"About 100,000 children are reported missing to police each year. Many are quickly reunited with their families but only a very small number are abducted.

"By establishing a powerful partnership between the police, media and the public, Child Rescue Alert allows information about the child and the suspect to be shared in just a few hours of a disappearance when the criteria for such an alert are met.

"These are often the vital hours which could literally mean the difference between life and death.

"Child Rescue Alert is not expected to be used often, as strict criteria must be met, but it is a valuable tool available to a senior investigator to be used in the right situations.

"We plan to increase public awareness about the scheme in the coming months so people understand how it works and what to do in the event an alert is launched."

Work on the improved system began after the NPIA won a share of one million euros (£886,000) from the European Commission alongside France, Holland and Belgium.

Portugal, Spain and the Czech Republic have already introduced their versions of child abduction alerts that link with the European network.

The previous national alert system was established in 2006 and has only been used on a handful of occasions.

They included an incident when a six-year-old girl was found under a bed after being missed in a search and a child left strapped into a car stolen by thieves.

Investigators believe about 700 child abductions are reported each year, the vast majority of which involve the break-up of their parents.

The rescue alert will be used alongside low-profile techniques such as studying CCTV, checking financial records and tracking mobile phones.

An alert can only be issued when the child is aged under 18, there is a reasonable belief he or she has been abducted and could be in imminent danger.

The message will include a description of the child, the location and nature of offences and description of the suspect and any vehicle they are using.

Lady Catherine Meyer, who founded the charity Pact, Parents and Abducted Children Together, welcomed the move.

She said: "I am delighted because it is something that I have been campaigning for for many years.

"This is very exciting because for the first time the UK will have a co-ordinated response.

"The problem here was we had so many different police forces and different departments dealing with different areas."

Lady Catherine set up Pact several years after her two young children failed to return from a trip to their father in Germany, despite a court order.