Facebook's Emily Vacher, the director of trust and safety, speaks about the social networking site teaming up with the South African Police Service to help fight the scourge of vulnerable missing children. Video: Sihle Mlambo

Facebook and SAPS team up to help fight scourge of missing children

By Sihle Mlambo Time of article published Jan 30, 2020

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Johannesburg - ‘Have you seen this missing child? Please retweet, please share’.  

This has become something of a phenomenon in South Africa in recent years.

And now Facebook and the South African Police Service have partnered to bring the social networks missing childrens alert - the Amber Alert - to South Africa. 

Amber stands for ‘America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response’. It was named in memory of Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old girl abducted and murdered in Arlington, Texas, in 1996.

SA will become the first African country to utilise the alert, which is already in use in countries around the world, including the US, the UK, France, Russia, Australia, Ecuador and Canada. 

Emily Vacher, Facebook’s director of trust and safety, explained that alerts would only be sent in critical circumstances, where the safety of the child was at risk. 

HOW IT WORKS 

She explained that once a missing persons case had been opened at a police station, the police would then draft an e-mail to Facebook’s global security centre, and within 15 minutes, Facebook would distribute an Amber Alert to people within the affected area, calling them to action.  

“We want them (the public) to see it as an opportunity, they are in a position to help a missing child and they have the opportunity to do so, all they have to do is read the alert, and remain aware of their surroundings. 

“I hope this never gets used, because that means a child has gone missing. I hope the public becomes aware of what an Amber Alert means and that they come together to take action if they ever see an alert. We also hope this will spark conversations between parents and their children, police and their communities, to keep children safe,” said Vacher.   

Vacher said they partnered with South Africa because of the commitment shown by various NGOs and the national police service towards children.

“There are incredible NGOs in child safety, and this is an issue that is talked about. It has worked, it is addressed and we thought it would be an excellent tool to assist law enforcement incase they ever need it, to be able to share that content with the child’s community,” she said. 

Emily Vacher and General Khehla Sitole shake hands
Emily Vacher, Facebook director for trust and safety, and SAPS national commissioner General Khehla Sitole shake hands at the Amber Alert launch. Picture: Sihle Mlambo

Due to the nature of the alert and its use of location services to determine which people an alert is sent to, Vacher explained that Facebook’s automated systems would pull in check-in services information and location services to determine who to target. But, she said, Facebook would not override and send alerts to people who had blocked their location services from their social media experience. 

“We certainly do not want the alerts to be unwelcome, so we will never do that,” she said. 

Vacher urged parents and guardians to act immediately, if they ever suspected children went missing. 

“It is important to mention to the public, never wait when a child goes missing… Every minute is so critical, its so much more important that the parent alert the police, even if it’s a mistake,” she said. 

Graphic: Supplied

24/7

Vacher said they ran a 24/7 global security centre with trained staff who would be tasked with pushing the alerts. 

She also explained that the Amber Alert was specifically for missing children who were at high risk of death or bodily injury. 

“Right now it is a unique system designed for those under 18 only. We do work with police, NGOs, child safety and human trafficking organisations, on other methods to get the information out to the public quickly. What we are doing right now is focusing on the most vulnerable group,” she said. 

Meanwhile, National Police Commissioner General Khehla Sitole, urged members of the community to immediately report missing children to the police. 

“The SAPS cannot direct anyone away, there is no waiting period to report a missing child,” he said. 

Picture: Supplied

He said online reporting systems were assisting police in their duties, and said the police had received more than 1400 tip offs since they launched the MySAPS app. Out of those tip offs, he said, four people had been arrested. 

“We are country that is strongly affected by violence against women and children. We have a strong that this initiative will be instrumental against the fight of gender-based violence,” he said. 

Sitole said cases of missing children were deeply traumatic experiences, and said those parents who had never been in the ordeal, should ‘thank the Lord’. 

“It is extremely important to report immediately, and the participation of the community in searching for the missing child is encouraged,” he said. 

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