Improvements made to Ont. Amber Alert system
TORONTO - Ontario police now have greater leeway for sounding the alarm in the critical first few hours of a child's disappearance under new Amber Alert guidelines spurred by the murder of an eight-year-old girl.
The abduction and slaying of Tori Stafford unleashed a torrent of criticism against Oxford Community Police for not issuing an alert after the Grade 3 student went missing outside her Woodstock, Ont., school in April.
The force said the case didn't meet the criteria.
Previously, police had to confirm a child had been abducted, believe the child to be in danger of serious harm or death, and have descriptive information about the child and a suspect or vehicle.
As of Monday, police will only have to believe, and not confirm, that a child has been abducted and fear that they are in any type of danger.
Authorities can also issue an alert without descriptive information about an abductor or vehicle.
"The Stafford investigation, you could say, was a catalyst to initiate the review, but it wasn't the only factor that led to the review being called," said provincial police Insp. Dave Ross.
"We routinely review programs and practices but certainly the case was a catalyst because it brought the program to the forefront."
Tori's father, Rodney Stafford, said he was pleased to hear about the changes.
"I think that's outstanding," he said.
Still, Stafford said he was concerned the new rules could see people "cry wolf" about a suspected disappearance, "where there's a lot of people who jump to a conclusion because somebody says something that sounds big."
"But I don't know, if they can work it so that it does work ... that would be great," Stafford said.
In a release detailing the new criteria, provincial police said the guidelines are to be "used for ensuring any alerts are appropriate."
"Overuse or inappropriate use of the Amber Alert program could cause the public to pay less attention and reduce the effectiveness of the program," the force warns.
Stafford said he's not sure if the revised guidelines would have helped in his daughter's case -- it's his understanding that Tori died the evening she was taken.
"And it took 2 1/2, almost three hours before the phone call was made to police. So there's a very good chance it may not have (helped) but who knows, it may have," he said.
A petition dubbed "Tori's Law" called for changes to the alert criteria and gained momentum online, ballooning to more than 61,000 signatures. The petition said the Amber Alert should be issued without question if the mother, father or guardian finds it out of character for a child under 16 to be missing for any length of time.
As per one of the review's recommendations, Sgt. Steve Montpetit has been appointed as a dedicated Amber Alert co-ordinator. He will be responsible for all aspects of the program, including training, education and awareness, communication and expansion of the program.
The Amber Alert program was created in 1996, after the kidnapping and murder of nine-year-old Amber Hagerman in Arlington, Texas. Her community started it, hoping to prevent future abductions and improve the safety of children.
Ontario's program was set up in 2003 as a voluntary co-operative between radio and television stations and police and government agencies.
Since 2002, there have been 16 Amber Alert activations in Ontario, 15 of them since Ontario launched its program. Of these cases, 12 children were safely recovered but Ross said it's hard to know how great a role the program played in those cases.