Revamped child abduction alert system launched

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The Independent Online

Police unveiled a revamped nationwide alert system today aimed at enlisting the public to help rescue abducted children.

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.

Mrs McCann will join other relatives of missing children to mark the launch in central London today, International Missing Children's Day.

Chief Constable Peter Neyroud, head of the National Police Improvement Agency (NPIA), said the actions of police immediately after a disappearance are "vital".

He said: "Through Child Rescue Alert the community is able to form a strong alliance to help in the hunt for child abductors when an alert is activated.

"It is fitting that the NPIA should relaunch (the) alert on International Missing Children's Day, which forms a poignant reminder of the sense of devastation caused to the parents and families of children who go missing."

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

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 NPIA and any national abduction will be led by Greater Manchester Police.

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 2005 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.

Scotland Yard's Deputy Assistant Commissioner Richard Bryan, the national lead for missing children, said the alert means police, press and members of the public work together.

He said: "Early intervention is vital to the successful location of a child who has gone missing and we hope this alliance will go some way towards reuniting missing children with their loved ones."