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An Amber alert is seen on the Highway 401 in Toronto.

Jim Ross/Jim Ross

Police agencies across Ontario now have new, clearer guidelines over when to issue an Amber Alert in the case of abducted children.

The changes, effective today, are being made after a review called by provincial police commissioner Julian Fantino in May. The wording has been simplified to make it easier for police and the public to understand the guidelines for when to issue an alert that's broadcast on electronic highway signs, radio and television stations and in text messages, provincial police Insp. Dave Ross said.

Under the previous criteria, police had to confirm an abduction of a child under 18 had taken place before an Amber Alert was issued. Now, he said, they only have to believe there's been an abduction. Police will only have to believe a child is in danger to issue an alert, where before they had to believe the child was in danger of serious bodily harm or death.

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And police will only need to have information about the child or the abductor or the suspect vehicle, instead of all three, to issue an alert, Mr. Ross said.

Oxford Community Police were criticized for not issuing an Amber Alert in April when eight-year-old Victoria Stafford disappeared in Woodstock, Ont. Her remains were found north of Guelph, Ont., in July, and two people were later charged with her abduction and first-degree murder. At the time Victoria disappeared, police said the case did not meet the criteria for issuing an alert.

"The Stafford investigation, you could say, was a catalyst to initiate the review, but it wasn't the only factor that led to the review being called by commissioner Fantino," Mr. Ross said. "We routinely review programs and practices but certainly the case was a catalyst because it brought the program to the forefront."

A petition dubbed "Tori's Law" called for changes to the alert criteria and gained momentum online, ballooning to more than 61,000 signatures. The petition said the Amber Alert should be issued without question if the mother, father or guardian finds it out of character for a child under 16 to be missing for any length of time.

As part of the review's recommendations that were adopted, Sgt. Steve Montpetit has been appointed as a dedicated Amber Alert co-ordinator. He will be responsible for all aspects of the program, including training, education and awareness, communication and expansion of the program.

The Amber Alert program was created in 1996, after the kidnapping and murder of nine-year-old Amber Hagerman in Arlington, Texas. Her community started it, hoping to prevent future abductions and improve the safety of children.

Ontario's program was set up in 2003 as a voluntary co-operative between radio and television stations and Ontario police and government agencies.

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Since 2002, there have been 15 Amber Alert activations in Ontario, 14 of them since Ontario launched its program. Of these cases, 12 children were recovered but Mr. Ross said it's hard to know how great a role the program played in those cases.

"An Amber Alert can be an important tool in locating an abducted child," Mr. Fantino said in a statement. "The OPP and all our Amber Alert partners are determined to make this program the best it possibly can be. A society's first responsibility is to protect its children."

"Amber Alert has proven itself to be a tremendous tool for police services across the province," said Daniel Parkinson, president of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police. "The program helps police officers work with their community partners when a child may have been abducted."

"The Ontario Association of Broadcasters (OAB) is honoured to partner with police on this very worthwhile initiative and believe that the changes to the Amber Alert will provide police with an enhanced tool to help keep our children safe," said Douglas Kirk, president of OAB.

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