KINGSTON — A significant push is to be made by Government to improve the image and public perception of the Ananda Alert emergency missing child system.
The efforts will focus on increasing the number of persons involved in the emergency network giving law enforcers a better chance of locating children reported missing.
The Ananda Alert programme has had a roller coaster ride since its establishment on May 19, 2008.
This renewed push to increase public support for the programme, in particular getting more cell phone users registered as part of the wider network, should provide greater operational successes, said Minister of State in the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM), Hon Robert Montague. He is responsible for local governance issues at OPM, and he has oversight responsibility for the Ananda Alert system.
Up to early 2011, just over 12,000 persons were registered by telecommunication providers, LIME and Digicel, to receive text message alerts. This is a fraction of the number originally targeted. Mr. Montague, however, remains optimistic.
“We are working with the Parish Councils to utilize the political network in the different parishes, as each political party has a representative in each community,” he explained.
“Once we log on to that network, we will be able to put that information in the communities quickly and persons will be on the alert to find the child,” he told JIS News.
The Ananda Alert emergency missing child programme was named in memory of 11-year-old Ananda Dean, who went missing in September 2008 and whose body was subsequently found, some two weeks after having been reported missing.
Under the programme, when a child is missing a report is made to the nearest police station, or by calling 119. The police then alert stakeholders, including media houses, mobile phone companies, local authorities, and Parish Councils who, in turn, mobilize activities at the community level.
After 12 hours, photographs of the missing child or children are placed on electronic or mobile billboards, as well as in shops, supermarkets, community centres, church halls, schools and post offices.
A website has also been launched, www.anandaalertjm.com, where information on missing children is posted.
The outcome of the renewed push, Mr. Montague told JIS News, should be an improvement in the coordination of the Ananda Alert system which is currently operating at about 75 percent efficiency.
“The last mile is always the most difficult,” he told JIS News at a recent stakeholders meeting. He added however that his department is up to the challenges, and the stakeholder are “just as enthusiastic”.
Concern has been raised about the low public response to the Alert network, where persons would receive text messages whenever an alarm is raised about a missing child.
Chairman of LIME Foundation, Errol Miller, said the critical thing for all stakeholders to do is continue with the public education/public awareness campaign as, eventually, the results would be achieved.
“Look, it’s a simple matter. Just text the word help on your LIME to a number that is provided and you will receive the alerts about missing children,” he noted. The numbers to text are: 444-4230 on your LIME phone, or 444-2432 on your Digicel phone.
Mr. Montague pointed out that individual components of the system were working, but they were not coming together as one.
“So, what we have decided to do is to increase the amount of staffing we have dedicated to the ‘alert system’, to increase that co-ordination. You have the police on one hand, the public, the Parish Councils and the media houses. We need to bring everything together, and that is what we are trying to achieve,” he said.
Ananda Alert has created a level of awareness among the public, pointed out Senior Director for Strategic Policy Planning and Reform in the Department of Local Government, Wayne Robertson.
"We want to get to the point of mitigation where it forces potential abductors to think twice, because they recognize that there is a nationwide initiative," he told JIS News.
The Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) is also an integral partner in the Alert network. They are of the view that the system works very effectively, and when text alerts and pictures are sent out they raise the possibility that someone in the public will always see a child that has been reported missing. When the information is relayed back to the police, it improves the opportunity to locate the child for re-union with parents, guardians or caregivers.
Mr. Montague said there were always challenges to the system, including legal issues regarding dissemination of information. He stressed, however, that the police have reported a 42 percent increase in the return rate.
He stated that, in addressing the matter of missing children, focus must be placed on the ‘family structure’, as not all missing children have been abducted.
"There are some deep-seated social issues that must be addressed, as it is not just abductions why people leave home: There are also internal issues in the home," he pointed out.
By RODGER HUTCHINSON, JIS PR Officer