What can be worse for any parent than to lose a child? People across Texas and the nation today may hear the warning of a lost or abducted child by radio, television, internet or text, commonly called an Amber Alert. But an Amber Alert does not refer to a color. It is the painful reminder of a little girl and a horrible tragedy.
Amber Hagerman was 9 years old in January 1996. She was described as a delightful and protective young girl. On Jan. 13, she and her younger brother were visiting her grandparents in east Arlington.
It was a Saturday that started with all the excitement and joy that any weekend offers for a young child. The two youngsters decided to ride their bikes in the empty parking lot of a nearby, closed grocery store. It was daylight, and there were other people around. And what 9-year-old could resist the chance to ride a bike on a free afternoon?
As the two rode, a man in a black pickup truck suddenly appeared, grabbed Amber Hagerman, and drove off. One witness stepped forward and told what she had seen, but the details were sketchy. Police leaped into action and conducted a relentless search. But four days later, her lifeless body was found less than five miles from the abduction site.
The heartbroken family, with the support of the community, decided to help others in the midst of their grief. Congressman Martin Frost of Dallas introduced the Amber Hagerman Child Protection Act that summer, which created a national registry of sex offenders and provided new resources for law enforcement. President Bill Clinton signed the act into law that year.
Locally, North Texas radio stations began organizing a new warning system through law enforcement to alert area residents of an abduction or a lost child. In such situations, time is essential. As a result, the Amber Alert system was in place by October 1996, named in memory of young Amber Hagerman.
By the year 2000, Congress passed new legislation encouraging all states and communities to create a similar warning system. By 2005, every state had its own local system in place. Within a few years afterward, similar warning systems were in place in Canada and parts of Europe.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has been helping police in missing children cases since 1984. They reported that in 2016 alone, they assisted in 20,500 cases nationwide. Of those, 90 percent were considered runaways. The next highest category was abduction by family members, in six percent of the cases, or more than 1,200. In other words, the children knew their abductor, and they were robbed of the security and love of family. One percent were children who were simply lost or injured. Abductions by predators accounted for one percent of the cases, but that still represents more than 200 cases per year.
However, the Amber Alerts do not always end with happy reunions. The monsters that torment families and the sick delight they have in torturing children physically and mentally and the unspeakable acts done to them have long haunted communities. New communications tools and a public willing to assist have proven an effective new tool for protecting children. No society that prides itself in morality or faith ever has to tolerate such atrocities.
Years later, leads trickle in to the Arlington Police Department in the Hagerman case, but it remains unsolved. The maniac responsible was never brought to justice.
Because of the Amber Alert system in place across the nation, many lives have been saved and hundreds of children have been returned to their loving families unharmed. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children states that 868 children have been saved through the program. But for one Texas family, it will always be too late, and they will always be haunted by the sight of an empty chair at the table and the memories of what might have been.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at drkenbridges@ gmail. com.