Unless little Caleigh Harrison is found, or miraculously returns home, as members of her family and people across Cape Ann continue to hold out hope, we may never know whether the issuance of a so-called Amber alert in the minutes and hours after her disappearance from Long Beach last month would ever have made any difference.
But if some good is indeed to come out of what continues to linger as a horrific tragedy, it may well be through getting law enforcement and other officials to take a fresh look at the requirements to be met under the Amber alert guidelines in Massachusetts.
And if it brings about any changes that could indeed provide new protocols that can help locate missing children in the future, that could indeed be a fitting legacy for the Gloucester toddler who vanished without a trace of any hard evidence — on the beach, in the waters of the ocean or Saratoga Creek, or on land, if there was indeed the abduction that family members continue to believe.
It's important to note that no one — from the families to residents who turned out in droves three weeks ago to attend a Stacy Boulevard vigil offering hopes and prayers for Caleigh's return — is blaming local or Massachusetts State Police. By all counts, police and other agencies — including the U.S. Coast Guard in the 30 hours or so after her disappearance — did all they could to identify any clues, speak with any potential witnesses and, yes, search nearby cottages and their grounds with police dogs.
But police — who emphasized, more than usual, from the start that they had not ruled out foul play — never did issue an alert through the nationally-recognized Amber system, the federally coordinated program that, as staff writer Joann Mackenzie's powerful Wednesday story noted, was named for 9-year-old Amber Hagerman, who was abducted and murdered in Arlington, Texas, in 1996.
The system was formally adopted in Massachusetts in 2002. Over the years, it has saved an estimated 250 children, according to the Amber Alert website.
But the Amber Alert system as utilized here includes a number of tight requirements — including that, as stated on the official Amber Alert website, "require law enforcement to confirm an abduction prior to issuing an alert ... as well as descriptive information about the suspect and the suspect's vehicle."
That raises all sorts of problems in the Caleigh case. Given that the little girl, her mother Allison Hammond and her 4-year-old sister Elizabeth, were on the beach, police concentrated their efforts on the premise that Caleigh had gone into the water. While there remains no clear evidence of that, there was certainly no evidence of any abduction, let alone a description of an abductor and, or a vehicle.
Yet, would it have accomplished anything to have posted an Amber Alert putting authorities and residents quickly on the lookout for a 2 1/2-year-old girl, with dirty blonde-colored hair, wearing both a pink top and pink bottoms and with no shoes, having been on the beach?
Couldn't such a specific description of a victim at least have put other authorities and residents on notice of what was happening — especially in these days of advanced social media?
There are reasons, of course, for limiting the protocols for issuing an Amber alert. If, for example, Amber alerts were to go out anytime any child "went missing" for perhaps a half hour, then was found, with an easy explanation for his or her "disappearance," more people would likely give less credibility to any such reports.
But by adhering to the strict, current guidelines — notably the need for describing a vehicle involved in any abduction — authorities may well wrongly be tied to too high a standard, when the only "protocol" really involved should be to find the child.
Whatever happened to little Caleigh Harrison, it seems clear that she somehow fell through the cracks of the Amber alert system, and officials should take a fresh look at how those cracks and loopholes can be filled.