The high-profile disappearance last year of an 11-year-old Dundalk girl has inspired a new Facebook feature. The most widely used social networking site on Tuesday announced the launch of an Amber Alert system to distribute information about abducted children.
Facebook, with 185 million U.S. users, is partnering with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to create alerts that will show up on users' Facebook feeds in targeted search areas.
While many people already share news stories about missing children on social media sites, Facebook says the new feature will help distribute information more systematically.
The Dundalk girl was eventually found safe in a motel in Florence, S.C., about 36 hours after her disappearance in March, when the motel owner called police after recognizing her from a photo in a news story a friend had shared on Facebook. The girl was found with her father, who police say abducted her after killing her mother.
"Seeing that really inspired us, and what we wanted to do was figure out a way to amplify what people were already doing," said Emily Vacher, Facebook's trust and safety manager, a former FBI agent who worked in Baltimore. "Here's a woman who was just in the community doing her job. She had her Facebook page up. Because someone chose to share an important piece of information, this child was brought home safely to her family."
More than 700 children have been found as a result of Amber alerts since they started in 1996, according to program officials.
A newborn in Canada, who had been abducted from a hospital, was found last year, thanks to Facebook posts. Also last year, a Target employee in California contacted police with the license plate number of a man who was acting suspiciously in the store's parking lot after her friend told her about a Facebook post that a man matching his description was wanted in the kidnapping of a 7-year-old girl.
Facebook's announcement came on the 19th anniversary of the abduction of Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old Texas girl for whom the national alert program is named. The Amber Alert system is a partnership between law enforcement, broadcasters, wireless carriers and transportation agencies, in which information is posted on billboards, broadcast on television and sent to mobile phones in the critical early phase of a search.
"Remember, finding an abducted child and returning him or her to safety depends on a fast response," U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a video statement posted Tuesday on the Justice Department website. "The more vigilant citizens we have on the lookout, the better our chances of a quick recovery."
For several years, people have used Amber Alert Facebook pages to share details about abduction cases. But the information would only show up on the news feeds of people who either "liked" those pages or were Facebook friends with people who liked those pages, said Robert Hoever, director of special programs at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
With the new alert system, "the information is available to anyone who's in the geographically targeted area," he said. "That's the huge difference."
Facebook users cannot opt out of the alerts, but they can delete the posts.
In the Dundalk case, authorities allege that Timothy Virts abducted his daughter, Caitlyn, after killing her mother, Bobbie Jo Cortez, 36. He was indicted on charges that included murder and kidnapping. Virts pleaded not criminally responsible by reason of insanity, and is scheduled to stand trial in Baltimore County Circuit Court in April.
Carol Gause, 54, who owns the Colonial Inn in Florence with her husband, called police when she recognized the girl and her father from the Facebook post.
"It's a wonderful thing that Facebook is doing, and hopefully it's going to save the lives of many other people," Gause said Tuesday in a phone interview.
Gause doesn't take credit for the girl's safe recovery, saying that she was only one link in a chain of events that included her friend posting the photo to Facebook. "The Lord, he just worked all these little things out," she said.
Daniel Wallace, Cortez's father, said he is grateful for the way social media led to his granddaughter's recovery and hopes the public will use the new alert system. "I hope they look on Facebook for anybody else who's going through the same thing," he said.
Although his granddaughter was found safe, he said the aftermath has been extremely difficult for the family.
"I'm still having a tough time with it," he said.
To generate an Amber Alert, a child's disappearance must meet certain guidelines. In Maryland, authorities must confirm that an abduction has occurred, that the child is in serious danger and that there is an adequate description of the abductor, child or vehicle.
Maryland State Police Sgt. Marc Black said the agency has long used Facebook to post information on missing children, but to have the assistance from the social media giant is welcome news. Since 2003, 34 Amber Alerts have been issued in Maryland, he said.
"With an Amber Alert, the faster the information gets out and the more people who have their eyes and ears open, the more people who will see the missing children and notify 911 so we can make the recovery," Black said. "The chances of finding a child increase dramatically when more people in the search area are on the lookout, especially in the first few hours."
Baltimore County police spokeswoman Elise Armacost said her agency typically shares information weekly on social media about missing persons whose cases do not meet Amber Alert criteria.
As soon as those details are posted, "you immediately start to see social media users sharing that information — and that's what we want," she said. "It used to be that the only tool we had was the mainstream media. ... We're not tied to those deadlines the way that we used to be."
Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.