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Minnesota’s Amber Alerts Have Near Perfect Record of Finding Children

The state’s system for finding missing children was implemented in 2002. Since then, Minnesota has helped to recover all but one of the 46 children for which the state has sent out alerts, usually on the same day.

The emergency notices vibrate our phones, light up billboards, interrupt televisions, radio and everyday lives for good reason.

Amber Alert finds missing children with efficiency, spreading life-saving information statewide in an instant and leading to swift recoveries. Since Minnesota launched the system in 2002, all but one of the 46 children subject of the alerts here were safely recovered — most within the same day.

But the mother who championed Minnesota's Amber Alert waited 27 years to find her son. In the midst of searching, Patty Wetterling made sure other parents didn't have to wait.

"I love the Amber Alert and have been with it since it started," she said. "I met Amber's mom in Texas after they had established an Amber plan, and I brought it home to Minnesota. I thought, 'There's a good idea.' And I met with the chiefs of police and the sheriffs association, and they all agreed."

Jacob Wetterling's disappearance in 1989 predates the system named after Amber Hagerman, abducted and killed in Arlington in 1996, when Texas became the first state to use the system.

Minnesota's success with Amber Alert doesn't mean the system is static. It continues to improve through training and by spreading to new communities 22 years after it was initiated by the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA).

Minnesota's most recent Amber Alert, for example, is the first to come from a tribal reservation.

When a 3-year-old boy from Red Lake was allegedly abducted by his mother in March, the alert rang out. Within an hour, a citizen spotted the suspect's vehicle and called 911. The boy was in pain, but safe. His mother, Jennifer Stately, stands accused of killing his two brothers.

The alert prevented further tragedy, said BCA Superintendent Drew Evans, and yet again proved the system is an effective tool.

"There's only so many law enforcement officers that are out working at any given time," he said. "Yet we have nearly 6 million Minnesotans that can be our eyes and ears out in the community and everybody has a vested interest in the community in recovering our children."

Amber Alert in Indian Country

But there was a gap for years as tribal law enforcement agencies didn't have an Amber Alert program in place to notify and respond when a child went missing.

After an 11-year-old girl of the Navajo Nation was abducted and murdered in 2016, her mother fought for change which led to the Ashlynne Mike Amber Alert in Indian Country Act of 2018 to support tribal communities in developing Amber Alert programs.

Locally, that translated to the delivery of free technology toolkits in May 2023 to all 11 tribes in Minnesota. Kayley Sansom of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives (MMIR) Office at the state's Department of Public Safety (DPS) then said that Indigenous people have long been silenced and that the toolkits facilitate faster, stronger communication.

Because of these recent efforts, the groundwork was there to respond in Red Lake.

"All of the time and effort that's put into the work that we do in Indian Country to train law enforcement, to work with the families ... it works, it makes a difference," said Janell Rasmussen, administrator of the National Amber Alert program.

"Kids are safe today because of the time put in by so many people that dedicate their life to this work."

She said that weeks after the Red Lake alert, the MMIR and DPS gathered tribal agencies in Minnesota again to debrief: what went right, what did they learn, what could they refine.

Alan Nanavaty, executive director of the missing children division at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said 92 percent of missing Native children are reported outside reservations.

"We've really seen an increase in collaboration, more involvement between the state level and the tribes. A lot of work to be done, you know, but it's definitely trending in the right direction," he said.

Criteria and Community Buy-In

Amber works because the alerts are rare by design and Minnesotans stay aware.

The state is careful not to overuse the system and desensitize the public, Rasmussen said. Each state sets its criteria for issuing an alert.

In Minnesota, the BCA requires the child to be in imminent danger and younger than 17. There has to be detailed information to disseminate to the public, too, like a suspect vehicle description. Without that, the public wouldn't know what to look for.

The BCA issues an alert by request if criteria is met. Phones are activated statewide. TV and radio share the alert every 15 minutes for the first two hours and every 30 minutes for the next three hours. When Amber criteria are not met, local agencies can issue endangered or missing persons alerts.

The 2003 Protect Act established the National Amber Alert Network. Amber is an acronym for "America's Missing Broadcast Emergency Response," harkening back to the days when alerts didn't ping cell phones.

No matter the means of delivering alerts, Amber Alert's near-perfect success rate in Minnesota has remained the same for decades, largely because of vigilant citizens.

In 2013, the system was the first in the nation to successfully send alerts to cellphones, leading to the quick recovery of an abducted baby in Minneapolis. The brand-new alert flashed on a teenager's cellphone, he spotted the abandoned car and called 911.

It's a similar story for Barb Gusse. She had just come in from filling the bird feeders in the winter of 2021 when her phone buzzed. She noticed a lone vehicle idling in the church parking lot across from her Brooklyn Center home. She grabbed her binoculars and zeroed in on the license plate. A match.

In the back seat, a crying baby was recovered in the stolen vehicle.

"My heart went to my feet," Gusse then told the Star Tribune. "I was shaking so bad I couldn't hold a cup."

Despite the mayor of Minneapolis proclaiming a Barbara Gusse Day in her honor, she took little credit for her actions.

"I'm no hero," Gusse said. "I'm just a grandmother."

The Work Carries On

Alayna Ertl is the one child Minnesota's Amber Alert system couldn't save.

The 5-year-old girl was murdered in 2016 by the time her parents woke up and didn't find her in bed. It was too late by the time an alert was issued.

Minnesota's system mirrors national data showing that 99 percent of missing children are found safe.

Rasmussen, who hails from Mapleton, Minn., and previously worked at the BCA, said Minnesota was an Amber Alert leader from the onset.

"In the state of Minnesota, people really came together. And I think honestly, a lot of that has to do with Patty," she said.

A few weeks ago, they were in Washington, D.C., for National Missing Children's Day, where Wetterling served as keynote speaker. She doesn't dwell on what could've been if an alert had been issued for her son Jacob. Instead her energy is focused on traveling the nation to help train law enforcement and support other searching families.

Theresa Jourdain is still looking for her son Jeremey, who was 17 when he went missing in Bemidji more than six years ago. The mother organizes search parties to this day, and she also looks for Nevaeh Kingbird, who was 15 when she disappeared in Bemidji in 2021.

They are among the 30 children from Minnesota listed on the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

"I've met so many family members now, and everybody has their own experience, and each time we find another piece that maybe we can fix this or fix that," Wetterling said.

"There's strength in the resilience of these searching parents."

©2024 StarTribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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