Child Rescue Alerts: How they work

Supt Liz McAinsh holds up the Child Rescue Alert system telephone number Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The Child Rescue Alert system has a dedicated national phone number

Police Scotland has activated the national Child Rescue Alert system to help them trace missing three-year-old Mikaeel Kular.

The little boy was last seen going to bed at around 9pm on Wednesday - and when his family woke up he was not in the house. So can the CRA system help find him?

The CRA system is a recent innovation in how British police forces manage the search for missing children. It’s managed by the National Crime Agency and this is only the second time it has been triggered - the first being for April Jones in October 2012.

It’s highly likely that it will be relatively rarely used in the UK because most cases of disappeared children involve an evidence trail that leads to an answer.

In essence, the CRA is a mechanism to centralise possible clues and leads from the public and sift these for information needed by the senior investigating officer in charge of the hunt.

An alert can be triggered by any British police force - but only when a case matches three criteria:

  • The child must be under 18
  • There is a “reasonable belief” that the child is in imminent danger of serious harm
  • There is sufficient information for the public to be able to help the police investigation

When someone calls the CRA national phone number - 0300 200 0200 - a dedicated operator at your local police force will answer.

They will take down the information you provide and check to see if it matches critical information provided by the inquiry’s senior officer. If the caller says something that matches the keywords - for instance a reference to a particular car - the lead is immediately prioritised.

The information will then be checked against information held elsewhere, such as on the Police National Computer, local crime intelligence databases or the cameras in cities and motorways that automatically read vehicle number plates.

In theory, this means the detectives leading the local hunt will quickly receive the information they need without being deluged by hundreds or thousands of calls.

The CRA system is partly modelled on its American equivalent, AMBER, which was launched in 1997 after the abduction and murder of a nine-year-old girl the previous year. After Amber Hagerman’s death, officials discovered that local police had information that might have helped locate the missing girl - but they had no means of distributing the information efficiently to the public.

Resolving this question over how best to distribute information is critical to the future success of AMBER or CRA systems - and it’s likely that both will increasingly involve blanket dissemination of information and appeals via social media platforms. In the future, expect to not only see a police officer make an appeal on TV, but to tweet their appeal for help.

It’s worth noting that child abductions are rare - and when they do happen they are more likely to involve somebody who the victim knows, rather than a complete stranger.

Figures show there were 532 abductions in the year 2011-12 - roughly half the number six years earlier. Within that, abductions or disappearances of three-year-old children are very rare.

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