A long-awaited Amber Alert system for abducted children has been rolled out across Ireland more than three years after being given the go-ahead.
The Child Rescue Ireland (CRI) Alert will be triggered if gardaí believe a child has been abducted and that there is an immediate and serious risk to his or her health or welfare.
Senior gardaí said the system – launched on International Missing Children’s Day – has the potential to save the life of a child.
More than 130 youngsters who went missing in Ireland between 2007 and 2011 are still unaccounted for.
Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan said the aim of the scheme is to get the public’s help in child abduction cases.
Road signs, the internet and media will be used to highlight cases.
Once activated, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) will also be informed, the Commissioner said.
“In cases where an abducted child has been brought into or taken out of the jurisdiction the services of Interpol will be utilised,” he added.
The Amber Alert began in the US in 1996 when broadcasters teamed up with local police to develop an early warning system – including sharing photos and information – to help find abducted children.
Amber – America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response – was created as a legacy to nine-year-old Amber Hagerman, who was kidnapped while riding her bicycle in Arlington, Texas.
The alert is used in the rare case when it is believed a child has been kidnapped, is in danger, and there is enough information to issue a description. It is credited with helping in the recovery of more than 400 abducted children.
Former justice minister Dermot Ahern first signed off on the US-style rapid response scheme in April 2009.
Police forces across the UK, including the PSNI, have been operating a similar system since 2003 called Child Rescue Alert.
Commissioner Callinan defended the time it took to launch the alert system, adding that gardaí have been working with several agencies, including public transport chiefs.
“It’s not as if we have been sitting on our hands. We’ve been working very, very hard,” he said.
He also stressed it was important for the public to be vigilant and know that it will only be triggered in the most serious situations.
“The first few hours, like all very serious incidents, are of particular importance in terms of the success or otherwise of an operation such as this,” he added.
Elsewhere Justice Minister Alan Shatter said the CRI Alert will give gardaí the speedy means of disseminating key information during the critical period immediately after a child is reported missing.
“Thankfully, the need to use this system will not arise frequently,” said Mr Shatter.
“However, it is vital that we have an effective and appropriate response system in place to help locate a child who has gone missing as quickly as possible.
Elsewhere, the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children ISPCC was awarded an EU grant of €150,000 to set up a Missing Children’s Hotline.
The hotline, 116 000, will be operational before the end of the year and provide advice and support to family members of a missing child, to the child itself, gardai and the HSE.
Ashley Balbirnie, chief executive, said the ISPCC believe this is a vital service for missing children and their families, whether the child has been abducted, run away, lost or taken by a parent.
“We are delighted that after years of advocating for this service in conjunction with our colleagues in Missing Children Europe, it will finally become a reality,” he added.
Children’s minister Frances Fitzgerald said she will consider an application for funding to balance the set-up costs of the hotline on top of the grant from the EU Daphne Programme.
“The allocation of EU funding to the ISPCC is another very welcome step in this process and is very timely given that this is International Missing Children’s Day,” she added.