On the occasion of May 25, the International Day of Missing Children, ASTRA organized an expert meeting SYSTEM OF EARLY ALERT IN MISSING CHILDREN CASES (Child Alert) IN SERBIA: Assessment of the situation and possibilities, at which the publication SYSTEM OF EARLY ALERT in Missing Children Cases was presented. The publication is a comparative analysis of the operational and institutional practice of similar systems in Belgium, Greece, the Netherlands, and Croatia, as well as an overview of the domestic legislation currently regulating this area. In addition, we will present the main findings of the report MISSING CHILDREN SERBIA: European Missing Children Hotline 116000 in Serbia – The First Ten Years of Operation.
Both of these editions result from ASTRA’s previous practice and desire to share information that would be important for introducing an early warning system in cases of missing children (Amber Alert) in Serbia.
ASTRA, as one of the members of the Team for the introduction of Amber Alert in Serbia, and the organization that has been managing the European number for missing children 116000 in Serbia for 10 years, wanted to open a more comprehensive dialogue and exchange of knowledge, opinions, and experiences between representatives of institutions, and the civil sector, e.i., among experts in the field of child protection, children’s rights and safety, and share information that would be important for the introduction of an early warning system in cases of missing children (Amber Alert) in Serbia.
- D. Danilo Stevandić, State Secretary of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and head of the Team for the introduction of Amber Alert in the Republic of Serbia
- Zoran Vuković, Head of the Search Department in the Crime Suppression Service of the Criminal Police Directorate of the RS Ministry of Internal Affairs and a member of the Amber Alert Implementation Team
- Vladan Jovanović, independent consultant and author of the comparative analysis of the SYSTEM OF EARLY ALERT IN MISSING CHILDREN CASES
- Marija Vukašinović, MA Social Science and SOS consultant at the European Missing Children Number service
Ph. D. of Human Rights Nevena Šahović moderated the event.
OPENING REMARKS – The meeting was opened by Ph. D. Ivana Stevanović, director of the Institute for Criminological and Sociological Research, who highlighted the long-term cooperation with ASTRA and emphasized that the meeting is being held in the right place, bearing in mind the topic and importance of the discussion. Marija Anđelković, CEO of ASTRA, who on this occasion referred to the problem of missing children in Serbia and beyond/in Europe, presented current statistics and justified concern about the number of missing children, praised the effectiveness of the MIA so far, as a large percentage of cases have been positively resolved (via 90%), and recalled the long-term cooperation and two signed memorandums of cooperation with the MIA, as well as the recently signed memorandum of cooperation with the Ministry of Information and Telecommunications on the prevention and protection of children from violence and abuse. At the same time, she reminded those present about the procedure for obtaining and licensing the number 116000 for Serbia and ASTRA’s networking with international organizations dealing with this problem.
On this occasion, State Secretary of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and head of the Team for the introduction of Amber Alert in the Republic of Serbia, Danilo Stevandić, spoke about the previous results and success of the MIA when it comes to finding missing children. He emphasized the importance of early reporting of the case giving as much information as possible during the first report about the missing child so that it would be found as soon as possible. He particularly underlined the openness of the MIA for a broader social dialogue with the civil sector and other experts in the field of human and children’s rights protection, the right to security, but also privacy rights, and thanked ASTRA for the comparative analysis of the EARLY WARNING SYSTEM IN THE CASE OF A MISSING CHILD, and for the submitted materials for the next meeting of the Team for the introduction of Amber Alert in the RS, which is following Monday, May 29.
Also, according to Stevandić, taking into account the current capacities of the MIA and the existing technological possibilities that Serbia has, his assumption is that there are no major obstacles to establishing this system. But he also pointed out that at the next meetings of the Team for the introduction of Amber Alert in Serbia, when the system’s criteria and way of functioning are determined, it will all be crystallized.
Marija Vukašinović, ASTRA’s SOS consultant, spoke about the findings of ASTRA’s report MISSING CHILDREN SERBIA: European Missing Children Hotline 116000 in Serbia – The First Ten Years of Operation, and shared key findings about the profiles of missing children, the most common causes, criminal abductions, and statistics. ASTRA’s results largely coincide with the statistics of other European countries. She also talked about the potential place of the number 116000 in the AMBER Alert system as an additional resource for establishing an effective system for searching for children. The police will be in charge of searching for and reporting a disappearance. ASTRA can contribute by providing psychological and emotional support to parents/guardians during the period of the child’s disappearance. Also, ASTRA can offer services for the family and the child after the finding to overcome the family trauma. In her presentation, she also emphasized that prevention is key and stated that ASTRA’s SOS team noticed that in most cases of runaways, someone from the system had information about the child in terms of problematic behavior at school or that the children were on the records of centers for social work. Therefore, there is room for improvement in the early detection of children at risk of running away from home or social institutions.
The author of the comparative analysis of the SYSTEM OF EARLY ALERT IN MISSING CHILDREN CASES, Vladan Jovanović, in his presentation, highlighted several key findings that are important for the process of introducing Amber Alert in Serbia:
- Regarding the analysis of the international and domestic LEGAL FRAMEWORK – the general conclusion is that there are no obstacles in the laws of the Republic of Serbia to introducing an early warning system in missing children cases. Nevertheless, it is necessary to regulate by law the issues crucial for establishing and functioning the early warning system in the event of a child’s disappearance. A separate law can handle those issues but also can be integrated into the Law on Police. Analysis due to clarity and coherence is an advantage of a unique legal solution.
- For INSIGHT INTO COMPARATIVE NORMATIVE, INSTITUTIONAL, AND OPERATIONAL PRACTICE, selected countries have many years of experience in managing early warning in cases of missing children, i.e., whose systems have been developed and established, as well we choose one with a similar background, which recently introduced this system (Belgium, Greece, Holland, Croatia). Together, their experiences represent various approaches and ways of organizing. Still, they all imply the cooperation of state authorities, specialized civil sector organizations, and other social actors, and the criteria for launching an Amber Alert are very similar to them: (1) assessment by the competent authorities (police) that the child’s life is in danger; (2) the public prosecutor or the police issue the order to start the system, and the alarm is triggered by either the competent civil society organization in cooperation with the police or the police; and (3) the safety of the child as a priority, i.e., established clear criteria based on which it is concluded whether the initiation of an Amber Alert will in some way endanger the safety of the child.
- He also stated the KEY QUESTIONS that should be defined before starting the Amber Alert in Serbia, namely: what exactly is meant by a missing child; system startup criteria; criteria for determining whether starting the system in some way threatens the safety of the missing child; determine how many hours after the disappearance report the system is activated; how information about a missing child is distributed; how information about resolved cases is later processed and used; what are the criteria for inclusion in the Register of Missing Children; the role of the public prosecutor in the system; defined cooperation with companies running social networks; carried out a feasibility study in terms of determining the technological needs for the introduction of the system; and the defined role of the number 116000 for reporting missing children within the system.
DISCUSSION – AUDIENCE QUESTIONS
A question was raised about the controversial introduction of biometric surveillance over public areas, which was discussed in connection with the Draft Law on Internal Affairs. On several occasions, it was said publicly that this surveillance would contribute to finding missing children. At the same time, the civil sector warned that this type of surveillance violates the right to privacy of the citizens of the Republic of Serbia. Danilo Stevandić replied that the police would act as the Criminal Procedure Law prescribes, that it is clear that the MIA can observe this problem differently than the civil sector, but that is willing to participate in an open dialogue.
The author of the comparative analysis, Vladan Jovanović, added on this occasion that in all the countries that have already established the Amber Alert system, none of them the biometric surveillance is understood as a necessity for introducing this system. The question was addressed to the speakers by Jelena Pejić Nikić from the Belgrade Center for Security Policy.
Another question captured the attention of those present, which Maja Veličković asked from the Office of the Commissioner for Information of Public Importance and Protection of Personal Data, and it concerned the protection of privacy and security from secondary victimization of children who were missing and then found, or potentially abducted and found. This question led the attendees to conclude that to protect children, the media publishing method of publishing information by the media should be regulated, as well as the process of withdrawing information about a once missing child from the online space (from social networks and portals).
The meeting confirmed the strong motivation of the present experts and members of the Team for the introduction of Amber Alert in Serbia to do that work in the best possible way and inspires confidence that next year on this same date, we will have an established early warning system in cases of missing children and a safer environment for the youngest.