The 2018 National AMBER Alert Symposium, held in Orlando, Florida, May 15-17, 2018, was attended by more than 100 partners including AMBER Alert Coordinators, Missing Persons Clearinghouse Managers, Child Abduction Response Team (CART) Coordinators and other child protection officials. More than 40 states, federally recognized tribes, Puerto Rico, Canada and Mexico were represented at this year’s event. Program partners from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) and the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (ICMEC) participated in this year’s event as well.
This year’s symposium focused on the impact technology has on child exploitation and abduction, as well as how law enforcement and public safety professionals can use the latest advances to prevent and respond to incidents.
U.S. Department of Justice welcoming remarks
“It’s hard to think of a cause more worthy than the safety of our children, and it’s hard to think of a group of people who’ve done more on behalf of that cause than all of you,” remarked Alan R. Hanson, Principle Deputy Assistant Attorney General, U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), as he recognized and welcomed the participants of the 2018 National AMBER Alert Symposium. The AMBER Alert Training and Technical Assistance Program (AATTAP) was very honored to have him open the event. Hanson thanked Fox Valley Technical College (FVTC), its National Criminal Justice Training Center (NCJTC) and NCMEC for their continued work and collaboration in the shared mission of supporting AMBER Alert programs across the nation and internationally.
Hanson recognized National Police Week, thanking law enforcement participants for their outstanding service on behalf of America’s communities. He also recognized Pamela Foster and Amy Bloxom, two surviving family members of abducted and murdered children, who spoke with participants during the event, expressing his appreciation and admiration for their willingness and bravery in sharing their experiences.
Reflecting on the amazing work of the AMBER Alert partners, Hanson spoke of accomplishments and improvements in response and safe recoveries over the last five years. He noted that last year, AMBER Alert programs across the U.S. responded to 200 AMBER Alerts involving 263 children in 38 states, with almost 60 percent of those children recovered in three hours. He noted the powerful role the secondary distribution network has played in these alerts, with 94 percent of AMBER Alert cases in 2017 ending in successful recoveries due all or in part to the distribution of the alerts over this network.
“It’s hard to imagine that there was a time, not terribly long ago, when this incredible resource wasn’t available,” said Hanson. “Of course, a positive outcome is never guaranteed, but the statistics show that when AMBER Alert is part of the response, the odds are very high that an abducted child will come home safely.”
In speaking about his work and responsibilities, Hanson emphasized, “My role as National AMBER Alert Coordinator is one of my most critical responsibilities – and one I take seriously. I take great pride in knowing that my agency, particularly our Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, plays such an important part in supporting the AMBER Alert network.”
Hanson recognized AATTAP’s significant training reach and impact through onsite and online learning events and offerings. He noted AATTAP’s website and publication accomplishments, along with its stewardship of the DOJ Child Abduction Response Training (CART) initiative, training more than 250 CARTs, with 23 of those teams completing the rigorous CART Certification Program.
Hanson discussed how AATTAP is working with tribal partners, noting that the May 2016 abduction and murder of Ashlynne Mike from the Navajo Nation made clear that although much progress has been made through AMBER Alerts, significant work is still needed to assist tribes across the nation.
Hanson praised the Ashlynne Mike AMBER Alert in Indian Country Act signed in April 2018 by President Trump, emphasizing the new law will “ensure that resources are available to help protect American Indian children and spare others the suffering that Pamela Foster and her family have endured.”
Hanson emphasized that AATTAP and OJJDP will continue to work with tribal partners, building upon the more than 1,500 tribal first responders and tribal child protection professionals who have been trained so far. He encouraged all participants to become familiar with the resources and integrated information provided through AATTAP’s Tribal Database website.
“In Indian Country–and across the country–AMBER Alert is making a difference,” said Hanson. He added that the strong and good work being done by the AMBER Alert partners in their states and communities is a principal force in stopping those who seek to abduct children.
“I would wager that the very existence of AMBER Alert has deterred criminals from carrying out their designs,” said Hanson. “There’s no question that AMBER Alert is a potent public safety weapon and an enormous asset in our fight to protect children.”
Hanson remarked on the amazing progress of AMBER Alert since its inception 22 years ago. “From the seed of an idea planted on a radio talk show, AMBER Alert has grown into something very powerful, and very special–a national force for good. What a way to honor the memory of a little girl who, today, might have had a child of her own to look out for.”
Florida AMBER Alert partner recognized for creating child abduction response teams
AATTAP Administrator Jim Walters presented Donna Uzzell, Special Agent in Charge, Statewide Investigative Services, Florida Department of Law Enforcement, with an award honoring her many years of stewardship and significant contributions to the Child Abduction Response Team (CART) program initiative and training.
Walters shared how Uzzell championed the CART concept in Florida and in her work over the past decade, expanding the program with FVTC, OJJDP and AATTAP. He noted how Uzzell’s leadership contributed to the development of a comprehensive curriculum, and thanked her for the many hours of expert instruction she and other CART instructors have provided to hundreds of CART training participants across the nation. “We would not be doing what we are today without the help of Donna,” said Walters.
AWARN – Advanced alerting using next generation television
Fiona James, Deputy Director of the AWARN Alliance, offered details about the advanced alerting program known as ‘NextGen ATSC 3.0.’ The system was approved November 2017 by the FCC. She explained the technology is ideal for mobile devices and connected vehicles and discussed how it worked during 2017’s large-scale weather emergencies.
James acknowledged emergency managers’ concerns about over-alerting, which causes people to tune out or ignore alerts. She described how providing incomplete information can inadvertently drive people into harm’s way, noting how critically important it is to use targeted, geographic alerting with clear information and messaging.
James outlined AWARN’s advantages, including geo-targeting capabilities, rich media (photo, video, maps and routes), ability to support multilingual content, message accessibility, deep indoor and mobile reception, device-wakeup capability and integration with social media platforms (creating a hybrid backchannel for alerting). She also noted its scalability to an unlimited number of devices.
Efforts are underway to migrate to a ‘banner’ style of alert for screen messaging, which can include a photo of the child. James noted users will be able to exit or close the banner or click on it for more information. AWARN can also deliver additional information and instructions to help the public better understand important messages and reduce calls for more details that can overload 911 call centers, law enforcement agencies and two-way communication systems.
AWARN is working to develop the best possible user experience by gathering input from focus groups including public safety professionals. A primary goal is to create a consistent look and feel across states so the public recognizes the messages as ‘real’ alerts--and not just another version of ‘breaking news.’ The transfer to ATSC 3.0 will move from market to market beginning in late 2018 as part of a strategic testing and rollout process. More information is available at www.awarn.org.
Family abductions and cross-border cases: identifying and responding to high risk incidents and utilizing specialized resources
Maureen Heads, Program Manager with the Missing Children Division at NCMEC, spoke about the increase in frequency and level of endangerment in family abduction cases. She said the majority of abductions, 66 percent, involve a family member; noting an increase from 57 percent in 2013.
Heads explained NCMEC’s role in providing technical assistance and support to families, law enforcement and prosecutors. She noted that while those working in this area from NCMEC are not attorneys, they are well-positioned to assist both families and child protection professionals with process and resource needs.
Heads emphasized the important consideration that parental abduction cases may not involve taking a child through physical force or emotional persuasion, which is characteristic of stereotypical stranger abductions. Children in these cases may be completely unaware of a conflict or struggle between the parents and may go with the taking parent as a matter of normal behavior, and because they trust the parent.
Heads illustrated the complexity this element of willingness can bring to the case. “The person you are helping one day may be the person you’re looking for the next day.”
Heads shared an overview of the work of Sharon Cooper, a specialized researcher at NCMEC, who developed a report highlighting parental abductions. The report discusses both realities and myths around these cases. She also highlighted legal issues regarding family abductions, citing federal statutes and explaining how they define both the authority and support available to investigators when responding to parental or family abductions.
Heads said law enforcement should not be hesitant about taking enforcement action in parental or family abduction cases. She presented statistics surrounding family violence as it correlates to family abductions and the issuance of AMBER Alerts. She confirmed that in all situations and for all questions regarding family abduction cases, the best way to contact NCMEC for assistance is to call the main call center at 1-800-THE-LOST.
Cross-border cases were discussed, citing case report statistics and the importance of resource support and intervention to work toward ensuring these abducted children do not leave the country. The timelines and progression of cross-border parental abduction cases underscore how important it is to act quickly on potential travel or cross-border movement rather than waiting.
Heads discussed the Mexican National AMBER Alert System (Alerta AMBER México), noting the strength and coordination of the program with NCMEC and U.S. AMBER Alert programs. She recognized the Mexican system’s Coordinator for her leadership and expertise with the program.
Heads acknowledged that while it is daunting to consider all of the agencies, resources and people working in these cases, law enforcement and public safety professionals should not hesitate to take action in pursuing them. She encouraged participants to contact NCMEC as soon as possible in these cases, so they can assist with coordination and provide ongoing support and assistance from beginning to end.
A surviving family’s perspective: Amy Bloxom, mother of Justin Bloxom
Introducing Amy Bloxom, Jim Walters acknowledged the invaluable contribution she and other strong and courageous family members and survivors make to the
AATTAP mission through their sharing of experiences and ongoing efforts following their families’ ordeals.
Bloxom shared details about her late son Justin, who was 12-years-old when he was abducted from a friend’s home in Stonewall, Louisiana, in March 2010. The boy was taken by a convicted sex offender who used messaging and social networking to lure him out of the house under the belief that he was meeting a girl from the area.
Bloxom described the impact of the loss of her child, the role technology played in his disappearance and how digital evidence played a key part in the conviction of his murderer.
Justin’s murderer was able to lure him under false pretense through text messages. “Four hours of text messaging is what it took for him to get to Justin,” said Bloxom. She said killer Brian Horn knew he was texting a 12-year-old boy because her son shared his age in the messages.
Bloxom shared about the night Justin was abducted. She spoke of the tips and leads that came in once the AMBER Alert was issued, including the school teacher who was up late grading papers and spotted the ‘Action Taxi’ used by Horn.
She recalled how it felt in the hours during which she waited for any word during the search for Justin. “All I could do was just sit there and pray. All the things you start praying for, thinking about.”
She also shared the moment when she learned of Justin’s murder. “When I saw my big brother crying, who is this big, strong, fighting, high-adrenaline police officer…at that point, I knew I no longer had Justin.”
It took four years for Horn to be tried for the murder. Beginning on March 28, 2014, Bloxom and her brother were the first to testify. The next day jurors were taken to the site of the murder. On March 31, all of the text messages sent between Horn and her son were read to the jury. This was the first time Bloxom had heard those messages.
She said it was haunting to listen to the texts, and how she wished her son had not answered them. The prosecutor and her support team helped her remember that Justin was only twelve and Horn was an adult who knew exactly what to say to lure her son.
The prosecution rested on April 5, 2014. After 45 minutes of deliberation, the jury found Horn guilty of first degree capital murder. During the penalty phase deliberations, Bloxom explained that one of the most redeeming moments during those horrible years of waiting for justice was to finally see her son’s killer placed in handcuffs. “For four years I watched this man appear in street clothes and no handcuffs,” she said. “Justin didn’t have any rights.”
Following the trial, jurors did not want to go immediately home, but instead visited Justin’s memorial garden, which the community had built and maintained in the years following Justin’s death. Bloxom recalled how one of the jurors spontaneously began to speak the Lord’s Prayer, with all others joining in to offer up a prayer for Justin.
The same juror held a cross in his hands throughout the entire trial. As they prepared to leave the garden, he gave the cross to Bloxom.
The sentencing hearing was held 45 days later, on the day before what would have been Justin’s 17th birthday. When Horn asked to speak, the judge told him his words were hollow and denied his request. The judge then sentenced Horn to death. Bloxom said the best birthday gift that could be given to Justin was to see his killer spend his first night on death row in Angola prison.
Bloxom spoke of the power of the AMBER Alert and all the incredible work done by law enforcement, along with the amazing response and support of the community during the search and caring for the family. She shared examples of the community continuing to honor Justin during important milestones he would have experienced, such as his high school’s ‘Senior Night’ and graduation ceremonies.
The taxi used by Horn was put back into rotation after the investigation and forensics were completed, yet ironically another crime was committed in that same vehicle. After the taxi was once again seized and to be auctioned, a local civilian bought the car and another taxi cab company paid to have the vehicle shredded and demolished.
Bloxom discussed her work to develop and pass ‘Justin’s Law,’ which prohibits registered sex offenders from obtaining a taxi driving permit. Prior to its passage, a registered sex offender could obtain a license to drive a cab; background checks outside of the state of the permit were not required. Horn had been released from prison in Missouri in 2008.
In closing, Bloxom shared photos of her son’s life, and of the memorial garden and events honoring him. “We relive this every day. Every day we wake up, we relive it; it doesn’t just go away. But we keep talking about it, and keep sharing it, because what you do is so important to get these alerts out. What the FBI did with the cell phone was incredible, that work was a huge part of being able to make the case.”
A surviving family’s perspective: Pamela Foster, mother of Ashlynne Mike
“May 2018 marks the second year of living without my beautiful daughter, who will never make it home.”
Pamela Foster expressed how with each anniversary of Ashlynne’s murder, she relives the nightmare, experiencing again the feeling of being crushed to the core. Even now, she remarked, the feelings of helplessness are still very much alive. She never expected to face such a tragedy and did not expect to have to understand the crime of abduction. She said in the Navajo culture, they do not speak of or think about abductions, as they do not want to create or call forth such evil.
On May 2, 2016, Foster received news her daughter Ashlynne and brother Ian were abducted on the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico. She received a call from her older daughter that they were taken in a red van. Foster said she immediately called her local police department but was transferred from one department to another, all in different towns.
Foster was desperately trying get someone to understand that she was in great distress, worry, fear and anger about what happened to her children. “I seriously thought that a missing persons call would get law enforcement on their toes and into action,” she said. “That did not happen.”
She turned to social media to share information and ask for help. Foster was in California and could not just get in her car and start searching. Hours had now passed and the sun had begun to set. In late evening, she received word Ian was seen running in the desert by an elderly couple. Although reluctant to get into the couple’s vehicle, he did because he was desperate to help his sister. Foster said she is grateful that this family helped him.
Foster described the frustration she felt because outside agencies could not search until authorization was given from the Navajo Nation. An AMBER alert was finally issued the next day around 2:30 p.m. “I can’t even begin to describe the pain that I was in,” she said. “I was happy my son had been found, but my daughter was still missing.”
Overwhelmed with fear and emotion, Foster paced the floor waiting to be given information, wrestling with questions and searching for what to do. She prayed to God as the search for Ashlynne ensued.
The next day, May 3, Foster continued posting information on social media, begging the public to please help search for her daughter. She spoke about the calls she received that morning, none of which brought any good news. Around noon she received a call, and upon hearing muffled sounds of crying on the other end of the phone, she knew the news was not good. Foster said she was heartbroken when she learned her daughter was found but had been murdered.
“The best way I can describe the way I felt in that moment is to compare it to a near death experience, seeing flashes of Ashlynne’s life, from her birth through all the milestones of her precious life,” said Foster. “What I held to be so precious was taken from us.”
Foster spoke of how she wrestled with the evil of her daughter’s murderer. She said her faith helped her survive the torturous pain that was to follow.
“This monster abducted my children with the motive to rape and kill,” she said. ”Since the death of my daughter, I have come to know that evil is not some kind of supernatural force, but it walks among us. It breaks my heart that the last thing she saw was him.”
“I know she was probably calling for us and was frightened for her little brother Ian. Only God knows when my baby girl took her last breath; she was precious and she did not deserve to die this way. To this day we all struggle with the reality that our daughter, little sister and friend was taken from us. I have become her voice, because hers was taken from her. At her eulogy, I spoke for her.”
In the weeks and months following Ashlynne’s murder, Foster was determined to bring justice for her daughter, her family and her community. She organized a petition to bring the death penalty on the reservation, yet that effort did not succeed due to the tribe’s traditional values and beliefs.
She continued to find ways to advocate for what she felt needed to happen, spending hours writing to representatives in Congress, seeking help on a bill to ensure the Navajo Nation and all Indian tribes would have the ability to rapidly respond to reports of missing children and use AMBER Alert systems.
Foster recognized the diligent work of Senators John McCain and Heidi Heitkamp, and Congressman Andy Biggs, in bringing the AMBER Alert in Indian Country Act into Congress in the spring of 2017. She shared how during this time, she felt her spirit had died. Foster said she had no quiet time and was constantly bombarded by the media.
In a struggle to carry on, Foster put her energy into working for justice for Ashlynne and for the passage of the Act and having it signed into law. With each visit to Washington D.C., and in meetings with lawmakers, Ashlynne’s story became better known to legislators. Although she was exhausted, Foster said she pushed through daily, for her daughter.
On October 20, 2017, Ashlynne’s murderer was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for her abduction, rape and murder. On March 28, 2018, Navajo Nation leaders met with Congressman Biggs to commemorate the passage and renaming of the legislation to the Ashlynne Mike AMBER Alert in Indian Country Act during a press conference held at the Arizona State Capitol. On April 13, 2018, President Trump signed Ashlynne’s Act into law.
Foster said Ashlynne’s death has brought to light the broader issues of missing and murdered Native women and children, human trafficking and exploitation, and all of the evil and criminal actions surrounding what happened to Ashlynne and other victims like her. “I see changes happening, but they are happening very slowly. I believe if there was some kind of system in place at the time of the kidnapping, we may have had a greater chance of finding Ashlynne alive.”
Foster said she feels her daughter’s presence through her continued work to bring awareness to the issue of child protection, and the larger problem of missing and murdered women and children in Indian Country. “I hear Ashlynne saying, ‘Mommy please do something to help the children.’ This is my reason for advocating and standing strong to fight for protection and justice for Native women and children.”
Foster thanked and challenged the participants to do everything possible to ensure that when a child goes missing, time is spent actively searching for the child and investigating the case, rather than being held up by bureaucracy or searching for what to do. “If you have tribes in your state, what are you doing to help them?”