By Denise Gee Peacock
At the close of the 2022 AMBER Alert and AMBER Alert in Indian Country Virtual Symposium March 29-30, family survivor Amy Bloxom shared two unsettling details – ones that no doubt strengthened participants’ resolves to keep people from ever enduring what Amy’s family has.
The day of her talk, March 30, marked 12 years since her 12-year-old son, Justin – “a very happy, trusting, innocent young man” – was lured by an adult male sex offender pretending to be a 15-year-old girl. Perversely, the killer called the fictitious teen “Amber.”
Bloxom, a native of Stonewall, Louisiana, detailed her family’s loss, search for justice, and ongoing advocacy work with gripping detail. “Every day I want Justin home with me. I miss that smile. I miss his goofiness. I miss the life we all had together,” she said.
AATTAP Administrator Janell Rasmussen later assured Amy that Justin would not be forgotten.
“Everyone with us today is committed to protecting children from crimes like the one your son experienced,” she said. “We want you to know we will work hard on behalf of Justin and the other children who are not here today to fight. His memory will live on in the work we all do to protect children.”
The powerful moment was one of many experienced by hundreds of symposium participants, AMBER Alert coordinators, missing persons clearinghouse managers, law enforcement officers, telecommunications personnel, Child Abduction Response Team (CART) members, emergency management and other child protection professionals from across the nation, including tribal nations and communities. The event focused on 30 topics, touched on more than a dozen cases, and offered hundreds of lessons and tips.
The virtual symposium was delivered using the Whova platform with Zoom integration, allowing for a dynamic experience in which participants could log into the event in advance of the start date, share a welcome/ice-breaker message and reply to others’ welcomes, view the full agenda, and create a custom agenda of sessions they wanted to attend (both plenary and concurrent tracks). They also could view presenters’ biographical information, contribute to polls and discussion board topics, and visit any session to view its recording on-demand for a two-week period following the event’s conclusion. The Zoom integration allowed a livestream of each session, complete with all of Zoom’s advanced interaction tools, such as chat, live polling, feedback indicators, and breakout rooms. Each session could be viewed within the Whova platform, affording participants the convenience of a single login for the event, where they could easily move from one presentation to another, be it live or live streamed.
“The pandemic continues to change the way in which we work. It has created both opportunities and obstacles, but it has not changed the fact that children go missing,” Rasmussen said. “They need us to remain committed in our work to provide law enforcement training and technical assistance to ensure they are safely recovered.”
“You don’t have to look far to find examples of how your work and the AMBER Alert network is making a difference. At the start of 2022, more than 1,100 children had been safely recovered because of AMBER Alerts,” said Amy Solomon, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General, U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs.
Attendees explored current obstacles encountered by their state, tribal, and regional emergency alerting programs, shared best practices, discussed innovative programs, resources, and tools to help support their work and make AMBER Alerts more effective.
Discussions focused on such topics as creating and sustaining Child Abduction Response Teams (CARTs); genetic genealogy; Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) strategies and advancements; must-know technology for combatting child sex trafficking; initiatives to reduce the alarming number of missing and murdered indigenous women and children; a program to equip Indian Country law enforcement agencies with new DOJ-sponsored technology toolkits; how to effectively work with the media and interview high-risk endangered children; understanding disparities in media coverage related to missing and murdered children of color and white children; reviewing the latest findings from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC); and opportunities for AMBER Alert and child protection partner collaboration via regional breakout sessions.
Rasmussen closed the symposium by thanking participants for their attendance and recognizing the AMBER Alert Symposium team, noting, “A symposium like this, especially a virtual one, does not happen without the planning, preparation, and work of a lot of people.” She also thanked “our partners at OJJDP, who have assisted us with the planning and approvals for this event. This would not be possible without their commitment to protecting children.”
Rasmussen then commended the symposium’s participants. “Your attendance was critical as we move forward with this program,” she said. “We value your input and suggestions as we continually look for ways to implement initiatives to help you address issues you face every day in the field.”
Memorable Takeaways from the 2022 Symposium Presenters
“Thankfully our CART procedures protected us when it came down to liability and accountability.”
Lieutenant Stacie Lick, Gloucester County (New Jersey) Prosecutor’s Office
The Golden State Killer case involved more than $10 million over its 43 year-span; 15 law enforcement agencies, 650 detectives, and 200,000 personnel hours; more than 300 people having their DNA swabbed, and 8,000 subjects reviewed in CODIS – with zero hits. Yet thanks to genetic genealogy, it took $217 and five people to find the killer: Joseph James DeAngelo Jr. “That’s the real value of genetic genealogy – efficiency and a lack of privacy invasion.”
Sergeant Eric Kovanda, Carlsbad (California) Police Department
“There are more kids on TikTok right now than there are on the playground. That’s also where sex offenders and traffickers are going to recruit their victims. The good news is that the same technology used by predators can lead to their downfalls based on the evidence preserved, even if they think they’ve deleted it.”
Blaine Phillips, Agent in Charge, Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics
Children who experience “adultification” are looked upon “as having made a choice — even if they were abducted, lured away, and/or exploited. Their cases are treated differently. They’re more likely to be disciplined and more vulnerable to discretionary authority. We’re not giving them support nor helping them utilize the resources they need. It gets even worse if they identify as LGBTQ+.”
Tina Bigdeli, NCMEC Program Manager, Outreach
“To serve and protect — that should include yourself. It used to be that we were expected to hold everything in, to keep it inside, shrug it off. Well, that doesn’t work.”
Carol Brusca, SHIFT Wellness therapist
“The unidentified need us to give them their names back.”
Carri Gordon, Washington State AMBER Alert Coordinator and Missing Persons Clearinghouse Manager / AATTAP Region 5 Liaison
“Native women on tribal lands are murdered at an extremely high rate – in some communities, more than 10 times the national average – according to research funded by the DOJ. And due to jurisdictional challenges, the disappearances can be hard to track and prosecute.”
Ingrid Cumberlidge, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons (MMIP) Coordinator, U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Alaska
After learning her son had been aggressively lured online by a stranger, “There’s a part of me that asks, ‘Justin, why didn’t you just think?’ But a detective told me, ‘Amy, he was 12 years old. You and I may see through manipulation, but he was too young to fully understand it.’”
Amy Bloxom, mother of 12-year-old Justin Bloxom, abducted and murdered in 2012
“We as a Native society make efforts to work through historical trauma by confronting it. We try to understand it and attempt to ease the pain of it. And we want to surpass the cycles of trauma to give our children better futures.”
Valerie Bribiescas, AMBER Alert in Indian Country Liaison
“Always thank the community for its support. They are the ultimate conduit to solving crimes.”
Mark MacKizer, Special Agent (Retired), Federal Bureau of Investigation