All systems go for nationwide abduction alert

The abduction of Ylenia led to calls for a nationwide alert system Keystone

A Swiss nationwide alert system for child abductions, such as exists in neighbouring France, comes into effect on January 1.

This content was published on January 1, 2010 minutes

The abduction and killing of five-year-old Ylenia in summer 2007 prompted increased calls for an alarm to be raised across the country every time a child is abducted.

Ylenia Lenhard was found buried in woods nearly six weeks after she was abducted and poisoned in eastern Switzerland. Then in March 2009, the murder of 16-year-old Lucie Trezzini near Zurich increased the momentum for a new form of alert.

Under the new system, as soon as cantonal police receive a report of a suspected abduction, they will pass it to the Federal Police Office in Bern, which will then distribute the message via car radio announcements, motorway overhead electronic boards and loudspeakers at railway stations and airports.

The first few hours after the abduction are the most critical, the general secretary of the Conference of Cantonal Police and Justice Directors, Roger Schneeberger, told Swiss German television. "Because the kidnapper is still moving around and the chances of meeting them somewhere on the roads or in public is greatest."

Schneeberger said the alarm would be triggered "when the child is endangered and not in the case of a missing person, because we have far too many of these cases, meaning the alarm would have to be triggered several times a day and would cease to be effective".

Success in France

The nationwide system has been triggered several times in neighbouring France, and the French police say it has enabled them to prevent four abductions.

One key element of the new system is the use of fast electronic media, including Swiss television. When a child is abducted, a rolling message will immediately appear at the bottom of the TV screen. In breaks between programmes an announcement with a picture of the missing child will be shown over the course of several hours.

“The example of France shows that in several cases the alarm has been successful,” Hansruedi Schoch, editor-in-chief of Swiss television, told the Tagesschau programme. “For us in Swiss television, it is important to be involved, to help.”

News agencies will also help spread the word.

In the course of the year, mobile phone providers are also expected to be involved in the alarm system, with all subscribers receiving a text message when a child has been abducted.

Parliamentary pressure

Parliament was instrumental in ensuring the introduction of the new alarm system to help in the event of child abductions.

In spring 2009, the House of Representatives followed the Senate in pushing for closer cooperation between cantonal authorities, the media, transport and telecommunication companies as well as victims' organisations.

Didier Burkhalter, the Neuchâtel parliamentarian whose motion was passed by the Senate, told at the time that he was calling on the government to implement a system similar to that in France – "which has proved itself".

In Switzerland calls for such a system had been louder in the French-speaking area than in the German-speaking part of the country. Burkhalter, who took over as Swiss interior minister in November, said awareness of the issue was greater among French-speaking Swiss who watched French television.

“But once the system is understood and people can see its usefulness and that it's another tool available to investigators, German-speaking Switzerland will also back it," he said.

In 2008 a pressure group collected more than 32,000 signatures for a nationwide alert scheme.

French model

Inspired by systems set up in the US (1996) and Quebec (2003), the French child abduction alert system has been in place since 2006.

The state prosecutor raises the alert based on the following criteria: the child is apparently under 18; there is a reasonable belief that the child has been kidnapped or abducted; there is reasonable belief that the child is in imminent danger of serious harm or death; there is sufficient information available to enable the public to assist police in locating the child; the parents have given their approval.

The message of alert, which should be "simple, concise and formal", then appears wherever possible: radio, television, stations, airports, motorways.

It appears to be effective. The alert has been used seven times, and apart from the first case (a false alarm), in each instance the victims have been found within 24 hours thanks to witnesses who had heard or seen the messages.

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