Little girl lost (not)

A child abduction that wasn’t sparked an alert system that failed. How is this a 'brilliant success'?

Helene Guldberg

Topics Politics

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An innocent game of hide-and-seek in the UK this week turned into a high-profile police hunt.

Police in Sussex used the Child Rescue Alert system – piloted in Sussex and to be expanded UK-wide if it is successful – to search for six-year-old Summer Haipule, reported missing by her mother on the evening of 8 July at 7.26pm.

The scheme, based on the USA’s Amber Alert system, works by interrupting local radio and TV broadcasts with news-flashes about a suspected child abduction ‘within the first critical hours’ of the child disappearing. Mobile phones are bombarded with text messages and information is flashed on motorway signs (1).

Chief Superintendent Paul Curtis, who led the Sussex operation, had to admit that the scheme had a few ‘teething problems’ (2). The police failed to send out text messages to the 20,000 people who were registered with the scheme, as the contract with the firm behind the service had expired. Nor did Sussex Council have the appropriate equipment in place to display the information on motorway signs.

And then there was the rather embarrassing issue of there not having been an abduction in the first place. The alert was launched after two young boys claimed to have seen the girl being dragged into an old Ford Escort. Instead, Summer was perfectly safe at a neighbour’s house – having fallen asleep under a cot after playing a game of hide-and-seek.

Yet Chief Superintendent Curtis still claimed that the alert had proved useful, saying that ‘certainly the message side worked, and we got some 70 calls in as a result of it’ (3). Sara Payne, mother of the murdered child Sarah Payne, went further in hailing the operation a ‘brilliant success’ (4). On what basis? Surely the operation was a complete flop on all counts?

The only thing the alert succeeded in doing was raising the panic level a notch higher: scaring more parents about the dreadful things that could happen to their children. Maybe this is the ultimate aim of the Child Rescue Alert system – and if so, it certainly is capable of doing a lot of harm. What is far from clear, given this recent case, is whether it can do any good at all.

The alert was not broadcast until almost five hours after the child was last seen by the family and three hours after she was reported missing. And as Chief Superintendent Jeremy Paine, who launched the scheme in Brighton in November 2002 along with Sara Payne, said: ‘sadly, in most cases within three to six hours the child will die if we do not recover them.’ (5) A study in the USA found that 74 percent of children who are murdered by their kidnappers are killed within three hours of being taken (6). So even without the technical ‘teething problems’, the late alert was more than likely going to be futile.

But most bizarrely, how can the fact that the police got over 70 calls from the public within a few hours of the alert being broadcast possibly be classed as a ‘success’? Surely none of the calls could have provided any information of any possible use? The main focus of the operation – involving five teams of dog handlers and helicopters – was, according to Chief Superintendent Curtis, up until the moment Summer was found, to find the old Escort.

Where the scheme is more likely to be successful is on making parents ever more fearful about the safety of their children. Child abductions are exceptionally rare and have not been on the increase. Yet we are constantly being encouraged to ‘be alert’.

Chief Superintendent Jeremy Paine celebrates the fact that the nation is being asked ‘to stop what they are doing, get their eyes peeled and see if they can spot the child or the suspect’ (7). He goes on to say ‘we have seen how the subject of child abduction has rocked the country in the last few years and people genuinely want to do something about it’ (8).

So is this what it boils down to: letting people believe they can ‘do something’ about exceptionally rare child abductions, despite everything pointing to the contrary; and in the process scaring everybody witless about what dreadful things may happen to their own children? The Sun newspaper sums up the sentiment well: its advice to parents is to ‘spend a few minutes each day talking to your children about how to react in risky situations’ (9).

Now there’s a good way of really making sure that children grow up as fearful of life as adults already are.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Parents and kids

(1) What is Child Rescue Alert?, on the BBC website

(2) Snatch alert swings into action, BBC News, 8 July 2003

(3) Snatch alert swings into action, BBC News, 8 July 2003

(4) The Sun, July 9, 2003, p5

(5) Kidnap warning scheme launched, BBC News, 14 November 2002

(6) Amber Alert: does it work?, Jessica Reaves, Time, 13 March 2003

(7) Abducted child scheme ‘a lifesaver’, BBC News, 23 September 2002

(8) Kidnap warning scheme launched, BBC News, 14 November 2002

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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