Phoenix was checked out in Canberra Hospital but found to be happy and healthy. (Supplied: Cliff Mapham)
Last week a different and alarming Facebook post appeared on the computers and phones of many Canberrans — and it captured plenty of attention.
Six-year-old Phoenix Mapham was missing, and suddenly his face was popping up on nearly every resident’s newsfeed.
The ACT Policing post asked for urgent help in tracking the boy down.
ACT Policing’s Detective Station Sergeant Harry Hains says many factors drive the decision to issue an amber alert. (ABC News: Nick Haggarty)
Within 48 hours he was found deep in remote bushland inside the NSW Tallaganda National Park.
He was with his mother — causing concern for police — and was on foot with no nearby car or tent.
Detective Hains said he was also without food, clothing, shelter or mobile phone coverage, and a weather front was closing in.
“That Thursday night, the conditions were predicted to be quite bad out there,” he said.
Detective Station Sergeant Harry Hains said the Facebook post, which was viewed more than a million times, might just have saved Phoenix.
“People paid attention,” he said.
“The information we had come in was highly valuable — it enabled us to locate the child, and that’s a great outcome.”
Tessa Woodcock set up camp site in Tallaganda National Park with blankets and a small fire. (Supplied)
The post was an ‘AMBER Alert’, a new and powerful police tool used nationwide; but only sparingly.
It is reserved for high-risk, time-sensitive missing children cases.
The system has been in place in Queensland for a few years, but was only rolled out across the rest of the country last year.
When police issue the alert, Facebook posts it in the newsfeed of all available users within the defined area of interest, usually 100 kilometres.
Regular updates are also provided on radio, giving critical information.
The Phoenix Mapham case was the first time an alert had been issued in the ACT, and Detective Hains said he is hopeful the public will not have to get used to them.
A last resort used sparingly
More than 20,000 Australian children are reported missing each year, and unfortunately police cannot treat every case equally.
If an amber alert was issued for each, more than 50 would be put out each day.
Detective Hains said it is only issued in the most serious circumstances where police believe the child to be in danger.
Phoenix’s case did not immediately qualify for one — five days passed between the first alert being issued and the amber alert going out.
But Detective Hains defended that timing, arguing circumstances constantly change as new information comes to light and investigations progress.
“We need to be sure that the child fits the category of a child being at risk,” he said.
“The categorisation of the level of risk to a child can change, and that change can trigger an amber alert.”
For legal reasons, he could not reveal the exact information that escalated Phoenix’s case.
Fears fatigue could weaken a powerful weapon
While tip-offs from the public may have been the key to finding Phoenix, Detective Hains explained this type of information can also be a burden.
He said the volume of reports police receive in cases like this can be extraordinary.
“When we think about a child that is missing and in danger, that certainly evokes a response from the community that can be overwhelming at times,” he said.
Professor Rod Broadhurst, a criminologist at the Australian National University, said police consider the time spent sifting through it all.
ANU professor of criminology Rod Broadhurst highlights the huge number of tip-offs that lead to dead ends. (ABC News: Nick Haggarty)
He said it requires much manpower, plenty of which will be wasted.
“Often the case is that the information you receive is not accurate, or is misleading,” Professor Broadhurst said.
“Not intentionally — but it will tie up a lot of resources.”
Society’s eyes and ears are among the most useful resources to police — but they are aware they cannot be called upon too often.
ACT Policing has issued one amber alert in more than a year, since it became an option.
Detective Hains said they are very conscious of public fatigue if too many are put out, especially in cases where they are not needed.
“If we don’t use these amber alerts judiciously, and properly, where there is a high risk to the child, people will ignore them,” he said.
“And we can’t risk people ignoring them.”
But he said the gravity of amber alerts does not mean police take other missing child cases lightly.
Professor Broadhurst agreed it is — and should be — that way.
“A missing child is a number one priority problem, and would demand our fullest attention as soon as possible,” he said.
“It’s just the golden rule of policing.”