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Arkansas Recognized As First In Nation For Creating Child Abduction Response Teams

(Left to right) Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, director of Arkansas Criminal Justice Institute Cheryl May, Colleen Nick, Arkansas state Rep. Rebecca Petty and AMBER Alert National Coordinator Derek VanLuchene at Thursday's press conference ann
Renea Goddard

In 1995, the abduction of a six-year-old girl named Morgan Nick from a ballpark in Alma, Arkansas made national headlines. 24 years later, her mother Colleen Nick stood at the podium during a press conference in the Criminal Justice Institute in Little Rock Thursday, alongside officials from the AMBER Alert program, the Arkansas State Police, and the Attorney General’s Office, to formally recognize Arkansas as the first state in the nation to achieve certification for its multi-agency Child Abduction Response Teams (CARTs).

"That’s our job, is to fight for children that we’ll never get to meet," Nick said. "So that they’ll get to go home every night. So that there’s not an empty seat at the dinner table at their house."

The certification recognizes that Arkansas’s Child Abduction Response Teams were developed according to standards set by the AMBER Alert program and underwent numerous training sessions. The teams consist of school personnel, victim advocates, and emergency management personnel, among others.

Arkansas’s Criminal Justice Institut Director Cheryl May told KUAR News after the press conference that the certification took three years and the cooperation of over a hundred state agencies. 

"Besides the training, you know, each of the commanders had to reach out to all the local agencies,” Little said. "We had to come up with a model memorandum of understanding that every agency signed. Then we also had to come up with a standard operating procedure that would be applied statewide.”

Achieving certification was no simple task, officials said. An executive board was developed to oversee Arkansas’s 12 Child Abduction Response Teams. In order to allow different agencies to work together in spite of legal limits on jurisdiction, state Rep. Rebecca Petty, whose daughter Andria was abducted and murdered in 1999, devised a bill to accomplish that.

"To have a missing child, to go through that... my daughter was kidnapped four years after Morgan, and this lady right here, was the very first person to talk to me after I found out that my daughter had been murdered, and I can’t thank her enough for her determination," Petty said.

The certification is awarded through the U.S Department of Justice and the national AMBER Alert program. In Arkansas, child abduction emergency alert has its own name: the Morgan Nick Amber Alert. May says it was the 1995 kidnapping of Morgan Nick that first prompted a change – a change that would eventually make it into law.

"The whole key initial issue was being able to have law enforcement from one agency, that when they're activated for a child abduction response team, that they can go into another law enforcement’s jurisdiction and have arrest authority,” May said in an interview. 

Despite their widespread and long-lasting impacts, however, cases like the abduction of Morgan Nick and Andria Petty are actually not very common. In fact, they happen to be the rarest of all missing children cases, as AMBER Alert national coordinator Derek VanLuchene told KUAR News.

"Now when we talk about child abduction, there’s several different types of missing children, you know, you have runaways, you have throwaways, you have family abductions, you have the children that are out there that we don’t know what happened to them, and then you have that stereotypical abduction like what happened to my brother in 1987 where a complete stranger took him out of our backyard," said Van Luchen. "That type of abduction is very rare. Less than one percent of all kids that go missing in the country every year fall victim to that kind of stranger abduction."

According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s latest statistics, that amounts to about one hundred cases of "stereotypical" abductions a year in the entire country. Over half of these result in a safe recovery. The same statistics show that only a handful of these non-family abduction cases last more than a few days, and only one percent of nationwide AMBER Alerts occur in Arkansas.

However, what few cases like this that actually occur tend to attract disproportionately large amounts of media attention, captivating a nationwide audience and inciting widespread panic, according to a 2011 study published by The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. The study reports that this has influenced policy decisions and action taken by law enforcement and agencies in different states.

Despite the rarity of such cases, state Attorney General Leslie Rutledge says potential non-family abductions still require a quick response time from law enforcement and state agencies. As a result, she is committed to contributing funds to further strengthen Arkansas’s Child Abduction Response Teams. Along with Representative Rebbeca Petty’s passing of Act 931 which codifies Arkansas’s statewide child abduction response, it seems that Arkansas’s CART Certification is here to stay.