When to issue an Amber Alert? The law enforcement dilemma with a missing child

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It has been one week since a 5-year-old Cumberland County girl went missing from a playground while playing with her brother. Authorities say that they believe that Dulce Maria Alavez was taken from the park by a light-skinned, possibly Hispanic man driving a red van or SUV.

New Jersey State Police issued an Amber Alert for Alavez around 10 p.m. Tuesday – more than 24 hours after she went missing from Bridgeton City Park. The time between the girl’s disappearance and the activation of the Amber Alert has been the subject of some criticism from the public, with people wondering why it took so long before an alert was sent out.

Law enforcement officials say that there are certain criteria before issuing such an alert.

“We don’t do it often and if we’re doing it, it means that we have a child that is in serious threat of death or serious bodily injury,” says Jersey City Police Chief Michael Kelly.

RELATED: Authorities seek photos, videos from park where Bridgeton girl went missing 
RELATED: Bridgeton community holds vigil for missing 5-year-old girl 

Kelly is not involved in the search for Alavez, but says that he has investigated missing children cases before. He says that if an Amber Alert is issued, it means that there is an elevated concern for the child – but that not all cases fit the bill.

"We wouldn't issue one for certain custody disputes. To be quite honest, most of the potential abduction cases that we have come back to some familiar relationship and they ultimately are custody disputes so we really look at that very, very closely,” he says.

New Jersey State Police is the only agency that can issue an Amber Alert in New Jersey. The department’s guidelines for issuing the alert include: A reason to believe that the child has been abducted, a reason to believe that the child is in danger of death or injury and a reason to believe that by issuing an Amber Alert it will help locate the child.

"That's where the judgment comes in. Do you wait to get more facts or do you go ahead and issue it with the facts that you have?” says Kelly.

Kelly says that if an Amber Alert is issued, it is a serious situation and that the public should take notice.

The Amber Alert activated for Alavez is currently the only active alert in the country.

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