POSTED: Monday, February 2, 2009 - 7:13pm
UPDATED: Wednesday, March 17, 2010 - 12:00pm
Advocates for missing children want DPS to reconsider its policy of issuing the alerts only when children are abducted by strangers or taken unwillingly.
TYLER - A state agency's refusal to issue an Amber Alert for a missing 11-year-old girl believed to have run off with a convicted felon was questioned by advocates for missing children and a Texas lawmaker.
They said the Department of Public Safety should reconsider its policy of issuing the alerts only when children are abducted by strangers or taken unwillingly.
"People who prey on children more often use seduction rather than ropes," said Rep. Garnett Coleman, a Houston legislator who has focused on children's issues.
Late Friday night, police said the girl's mother, Maira Macias, was at police headquarters when she received a call from her daughter. The girl told Macias she is in Mexico and police said in a statement they believe she is with 23-year-old Enrique Vasquez, who was convicted of burglary in 2006.
Police have issued an arrest warrant for Vasquez on charges of kidnapping and violating probation. There was no information on the girl's condition or whether she was in the custody of Mexican officials.
The girl's parents told police that Vasquez played soccer with her father, but they were unaware of any relationship between the two and he did not have permission to take their child.
"Investigators and the family are happy to learn that she is still alive," Tyler police said in a written statement.
DPS spokeswoman Tela Mange said the Amber Alert was created in response to the 1996 kidnapping and murder of 9-year-old Amber Hagerman in Arlington, and was primarily intended for use in stranger abduction cases.
If overused, the system could become less effective, Mange said, adding that about 7,000 people are reported missing in Texas each year, most of them runaways.
"This guy is not a stranger," said Mange. "As horrible as it is, he's not a stranger."
Although the Amber Alert program is coordinated by the U.S. Department of Justice, states are allowed to set their own procedures on how and when it should be used.
Texas' Amber Alert criteria is similar to those recommended by the Justice Department, but adds a provision requiring that the child be "unwillingly taken from their environment without permission" of a parent or guardian.
But child advocates wonder if the state's policy is too narrow.
Marilyn Ward, executive director of Houston-based National Missing Children's Center, said the DPS should also allow alerts for runaways aged 14 and younger.
"In this case, even if she went willingly, she's 11 years," Ward said. "An 11-year-old can be coerced to do all kinds of things, especially with an older man like that. I'd like them not to adhere so tightly to the rules."
Theresa Tod, executive director of the Texas Network of Youth Services, said while the Amber Alert can't be used for every runaway, "in this instance it absolutely makes sense. There is an adult that the child is alleged to be with."
Cathy Crabtree, executive director of the Children's Advocacy Centers of Texas, Inc. in Austin, agreed.
"There's no question the way the penal code is written, that a child 14 and under cannot give consent," Crabtree said. "I can't imagine that the same thought process ... would not apply as well to abduction, particularly considering that this person is not a family member or relative.
"What harm can there be in running it versus the potential harm of not finding this child?"
Of the 236 requests to DPS for Amber Alerts since 2002, only 42 were activated — or about 18 percent, according to agency records. Two alerts have been requested so far this year and both were denied.
"It makes me feel a bit uncomfortable," the girl's mother, Macias, told the Associated Press Friday afternoon.
"But I think they (the Tyler Police) are doing everything they can," she said in Spanish.
Even in such cases, local law enforcement agencies can still issue regional and local Amber Alerts using their own criteria. But only the DPS alerts are displayed on electronic highway signs and the National Weather Service. Ward and others say that's important because more people are likely to see the alerts, especially in major metropolitan areas.
The governor's office said Friday that it's open to revisiting the criteria if law enforcement think changes should be made.
"These are some of Texas' most vulnerable, our children," said Katherine Cesinger, a spokeswoman for the governor. "So we certainly would be open to ensuring their safety in any way that we can."