The murder of 11-year-old Ananda Dean, who disappeared after school in 2008, still haunts Jamaica almost a decade later.
The tiny Caribbean nation named its missing children’s alert in her memory — the Ananda Alert — and on Monday launched a historic partnership with social media giant Facebook to help expand the reach of the alerts with the help of local Jamaican users.
“The reality is every child is our child. We all have a responsibility,” said Floyd Green, minister of state for education, youth and information in Jamaica. “You have to keep refreshing the conversation so that people know when a child is missing, you don’t have to wait.”
Green, who noted that May is Child Month in Jamaica, said the Facebook partnership is ultimately “about strengthening our child protection system,” and acting quickly on social media to increase the odds of finding the 10 percent of missing children who never return home. The country’s Ananda Alert works similar to the AMBER Alert emergency response system in the United States.
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“We have seen that the number of missing children is trending down, and the number of murdered children,” he said. “That is something we want to keep going down.”
Last year, 1,725 children were reported missing in the English-speaking nation, according to the Missing Person Monitoring Unit of the Jamaica Constabulary Force. Of them, 1,456 returned home, but 269 did not.
That’s too many, said Nathalee Ferguson, head of the Ananda Alert Unit.
“No government would ever be satisfied with even one child unaccounted for,” Ferguson said.
Jamaican child advocates say that while the Ananda Alert, the first such missing children’s system in the Caribbean, has been a great tool since it began in 2009, it still faces public awareness challenges. They hope that by harnessing Facebook users in Jamaica, they will make the public more aware of the alert system and recruit users to help in the effort to find abducted and missing kids.
“I see this as an impressive step forward for Jamaican advocacy and action for children,” said Mark Connolly, the representative of UNICEF Jamaica.
Facebook, working in partnership with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, first introduced the AMBER-style alert in people’s news feeds in January 2015. They currently distribute the alerts in 10 countries including the United States, Mexico and now its 10th — and first Caribbean nation — Jamaica, a Facebook spokesperson said.
Emily Vacher, Facebook’s trust and safety manager, who traveled to Kingston for the launch, said every moment is precious when a child goes missing.
“We hope we will contribute to kids coming home faster with this new system,” Vacher said in a video clip tweeted out by UNICEF Jamaica. “But it really all comes down to community and that’s what matters in these cases.”
Vacher explained that once a missing child alert is activated by Jamaica’s child protection agency, the Office of the Children’s Registry, Facebook will quickly create a posting. That post, which can be updated as new information becomes available, will then automatically show up in the news feeds of Jamaican users near the location of the missing child.
A 2017 study by Hootsuite of internet, social media and mobile use throughout the Caribbean region shows that of Jamaica’s 2.8 million citizens, 1.2 million are active on social media, and the number is growing. The number of monthly Facebook users, according to the study, is also about 1.2 million.
“Over the past five to 10 years, Facebook has gotten tremendously popular in Jamaica,” Green said. “The mothers, the grandmothers are all on Facebook. It’s reaching in rural Jamaica and a lot of other demographics. We believe this will help us expand the reach of the Ananda Alert system.”