DALLAS – Advocates for missing children want Texas' Department of Public Safety to reconsider its policy for issuing Amber Alerts after the agency refused to send one out for a missing 11-year-old girl believed to have run off with a convicted felon.
Police in Tyler, about 100 miles east of Dallas, requested the alert after the girl's mother reported her missing. She was last seen Jan. 24.
The girl's mother, Maira Macias, was at police headquarters late Friday when her daughter called her and told her she was in Mexico, police said. They believe the girl is with 23-year-old Enrique Vasquez, who was convicted of burglary in 2006.
"Investigators and the family are happy to learn that she is still alive," police said in a statement.
They told Tyler television station KLTV they are working with the U.S. State Department and Mexican authorities to reunite the girl with relatives in Mexico.
Police issued an arrest warrant for Vasquez on charges of kidnapping and violating probation.
The girl's friends have described Vasquez as her boyfriend. Her parents told police that Vasquez played soccer with her father, but they were unaware of any relationship between the two and he did not have permission to take their child.
The criteria in Texas to issue an Amber Alert is similar to those recommended by the Justice Department, but adds a provision requiring that the child be "unwillingly taken from their environment without permission" of a parent or guardian.
Child advocates say the policy is too narrow.
"People who prey on children more often use seduction rather than ropes," said state Rep. Garnett Coleman, a Houston legislator who has focused on children's issues.
Marilyn Ward, executive director of the Houston-based National Missing Children's Center, said: "In this case, even if she went willingly, she's 11 years old. An 11-year-old can be coerced to do all kinds of things, especially with an older man like that."
DPS spokeswoman Tela Mange said the Amber Alert, created in response to the 1996 kidnapping and murder of 9-year-old Amber Hagerman in Arlington, was primarily intended for use in stranger abduction cases.
If overused, the system could become less effective, Mange said, adding that about 7,000 people are reported missing in Texas each year, most of them runaways.
"This guy is not a stranger," Mange said. "As horrible as it is, he's not a stranger."
Although the Amber Alert program is coordinated by the U.S. Department of Justice, states are allowed to set their own procedures on how and when it should be used. Local law enforcement agencies can still issue regional and local Amber Alerts using their own criteria, but only the DPS alerts are displayed on electronic highway signs and with the National Weather Service.
Of the 236 requests to the state agency for Amber Alerts since 2002, only 42 were activated, according to agency records. Two alerts have been requested so far this year and both were denied.
"It makes me feel a bit uncomfortable," Macias told The Associated Press on Friday afternoon.
"But I think they (the Tyler police) are doing everything they can," she said in Spanish.
The governor's office said Friday that it was open to revisiting the criteria if law enforcement thought changes should be made.
"These are some of Texas' most vulnerable, our children," said Katherine Cesinger, a spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Perry. "So we certainly would be open to ensuring their safety in any way that we can."