Amber Alert criteria tough to meet, but NC’s director says missing persons cases all prioritized

North Carolina

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – “Why isn’t this an Amber Alert?”

People find themselves asking that oftentimes when there are pictures circulating of a missing child or teen.

The days pass, the number of people searching grows, and terrified parents make their pleas. For example, 3-year-old Casey Hathaway was missing in Craven County for three days before being found in the woods.

“I try to take the time to talk them through it, and I understand what you’re going through and just listen. That’s the biggest thing,” said Nona Best. She is the North Carolina Amber Alert Coordinator and the Director of the North Carolina Center for Missing Persons.

After consulting with law enforcement, Best makes the decision as to whether it’s a missing persons case or an Amber Alert.

Statistics show that most abductions are domestic. Children are taken by a stranger less than 2 percent of the time. Usually, the window to keep them from being harmed is only a few hours.

“Most of the time, when it’s a stranger abduction like that, when they’ve taken them and we know they’ve taken them to do harm, it’s done quickly. If I know law enforcement is calling me, I know that there is a child in danger,” said Best.

One case that sticks out the most for Best is a case she calls a miracle. Stefanny Lopez-Castro was abducted in New Hanover County by a man on a moped. Luckily, there were a lot of witnesses.

She was found chained to a tree but alive.

“So when we did find her, we knew we were lucky,” said Best.

But, in the case of Hania Aguilar, luck didn’t come. The Robeson County 13-year-old was later found dead in water and mud under a plastic table. She had also been raped. That ending weighs heavily on Best.

“We just didn’t have enough witnesses. It was so early in the morning and by the time we got the information out he had done what he had done the vehicle was hidden, and unfortunately, we just didn’t have enough time to work the magic of the Amber Alert.”

In order for a missing persons case to be categorized as an Amber Alert, multiple factors have to come into play:

  • The person has to be reported as missing to law enforcement
  • Law enforcement has to believe an abduction has occurred
  • The person has to be 17 years old or younger
  • If taken by a parent, there has to be imminent danger of injury or death
  • The person can’t be a runaway or voluntarily missing

Best is both a parent and foster parent. She often has to take off the administrative hat when she is talking to the loved one of a missing person.

Best is on call 24 hours a day and seven days a week. She also makes herself available to anyone whose child is missing. Sometimes it can be tough to convey to someone that their child’s case can’t be called an Amber Alert, but everything that can be done is being done.

“I mean, sometimes you can stay on the phone 10, 15, 20 minutes listening to them talk, and cry, and try to explain what they’re going through,” Best said. “And now, ‘she’s missing again’ or ‘he’s missing again,’ and they don’t want to do anything because she’s a habitual runaway.”

With all the resources that are used to find someone, Best said it’s her faith that she always comes back to.

“I pray with parents. I pray for parents. I pray for the kids that we make the right decision (and) that we move fast enough. I pray we look in the right places for the mother who has to lay down at night and not know where her child is. That’s what gets me the most.”

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