The nightmare of every parent became all too real for Michelle Riggs two years ago when a man broke into her home late at night, assaulted her daughter and then tried to drag the child through a bedroom window to his waiting car.

“God forbid, if she had been taken, I don’t know what I would have done,” Riggs said. “I wasn’t in my right mind that night to go find a picture or give the police a description.”

West Virginia will be the first in the nation to set that worry aside. School photos and physical descriptions of more than 300,000 students, grades K-12, have been entered into a database called AmberView. The pictures will be used to generate computerized 3-D images so police and the public have a better chance of recognizing a child from any angle. The database will be updated annually.

“How can you get law enforcement officials to help you find the most cherished asset God will ever give you when you don’t have a current picture or accurate biological data on the child?” said AmberView developer Bob Chico.

A child’s identifying information would be distributed within minutes of an AmberAlert, a system developed to help locate abducted children. Nearly 797,500 children are reported missing each year, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

“The national AmberAlert program as established is absolutely phenomenal. AmberView is an enhancement to that program and process. It’s a tool that has utility for policemen on the street,” Chico said.

AmberView could have multiple uses, including the tracking of sexual predators and aiding maxillofacial surgeons reconstruct the faces of children hurt in serious accidents, he said.

The program was borne of the knowledge that of the seven Amber Alerts issued in West Virginia since 2001, not one child was recovered with the help of a photo.

The West Virginia High Tech Consortium in Fairmont developed the program using $1.4 million provided by the National Institute of Justice, the research and development branch of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Program developers hope AmberView will become financially self-sufficient through sales to other states. A selling price has yet to be determined. There have been a number of casual inquiries from parents and educators across the country, including California and New York.

AmberAlert was created in 1996 after Amber Hagerman, 9, was kidnapped while riding her bicycle near her home in Arlington, Texas, and killed. AmberAlerts are broadcast on radio and television and appear on highway signs and, by request, on cell phones. AmberView information would use similar distribution systems, including cell phones.

AmberAlerts have been credited with locating more than 300 children.

“It’s so important that we get this right in West Virginia. We can iron out all the wrinkles and then turn around and propagate this in all the rest of the 49 states,” Chico said. “I think parents in Texas, New York, Virginia, Florida, California — they’ll all feel as I feel when it comes to their kids.”

In West Virginia, 55 of the state’s 54 counties are participating in AmberView; Mercer County has decided to take a wait-and-see approach. The program was tested in Harrison, Marion and Monongalia counties.

Initially, parents were wary that putting personal information about their children into a centralized database would leave it vulnerable to hacking, said Harrison County schools Superintendent Carl Friebel. Parents became supportive after learning only three State Police troopers would have access to the database.

“We know we can never guarantee the safety of a child, but the idea is that we want to stack the deck in our favor if there is an incident of any kind,” Friebel said.

Stacking that deck is what the Riggs family intends to do, through advocacy and support for programs like AmberView. Michelle Riggs and her daughter Carrington, now 12, have met with Gov. Joe Manchin to discuss laws protecting children. Riggs is also spearheading the West Virginia Child Abduction Program.

“This is a step in the right direction to protect all of our children,” Riggs said. “I’m hoping people nationwide see that AmberView has helped us and can help them.”

Trending Video

Recommended for you