It took a long time to pass Hailey’s Law.
Despite its easy appeal — who opposes improving Amber Alerts for missing children, especially after one failed Springfield’s Hailey Owens in 2014? — it took until July for lawmakers and advocates to see the governor sign their hopes into law.
Officials say the law has gone into effect largely without a hitch.
But advocates say the state is ignoring them again, and they say an alert about a missing 2-year-old in Springfield sent last Friday proves their point.
A key part of Hailey’s Law allowed law enforcement to add “clickable” links to alerts so people could immediately access more information, like a photo of a missing child. Friday’s alert didn’t have one.
A Twitter account run by supporters of Hailey's Law, including a Dent County deputy sheriff who created an app to help people look for missing children and Josh Schisler, a key advocate who shepherded the bill through the General Assembly, pounced.
“Despite assurances from Missouri's Amber Alert oversight committee,” the account said, "tonight's alert did not include any URL for the public to find information and updates.”
The account also blasted Gov. Mike Parson, saying he’d “failed to uphold the promise of HAILEY'S Law.”
That wasn’t the only complaint.
Another key part of Hailey’s Law required the state’s Amber Alert oversight committee — which hadn’t met since 2015 — to meet annually so it could actually oversee the system.
But when the committee met Dec. 2, it only had three members for 10 seats. Parson hadn’t nominated enough people for a quorum, so it couldn’t take any official action. It couldn’t even approve an annual report to the legislature, which went out in draft form.
Rep. Jim Neely, R-Cameron, who is challenging Parson in the GOP primary for governor this year, took an easy shot at his opponent.
“As your Governor,” he tweeted, “I will make the protection of missing children a priority for the state.”
The Hailey’s App account went even further, saying “The Governor of Missouri just broke HAILEY'S Law.”
Parson’s office and the Missouri State Highway Patrol, which oversees Amber Alerts, don’t see it that way.
Kelli Jones, a spokeswoman for Parson, did not answer a question about why the governor had not appointed a quorum before the Dec. 2 meeting, but she said the problem has since been solved with three appointments on Dec. 13.
“With three new members, their quorum issues were addressed and able to resume their duties,” Jones wrote in an email. “We look forward to addressing the remaining vacancies and members on expired terms.”
Highway Patrol Capt. John Hotz, who serves on the Amber Alert committee, also took issue with the idea that his department isn’t honoring Hailey’s Law.
Asked why last Friday’s alert didn’t include a link, Hotz pointed out the patrol put clickable links in Twitter and Facebook posts as well as an email alert for anyone signed up to receive them.
“That’s what we did with the social media posts and the email that went out to everyone that signed up,” he said.
Supporters of Hailey's Law balked when they heard that.
"Links on social media are not the same thing," said Sen. Eric Burlison, R-Battlefield, who first carried Hailey's Law as a representative in 2015, in an interview Friday.
Advocates agreed, pointing out the Federal Communications Commission explicitly required wireless carriers to allow "clickable" links in the familiar text alerts with emergency tones in 2016 to improve service.
"There is no excuse for Highway Patrol's failure to provide links to the public during these alerts,” Markus Owens, Hailey Owens’ brother, said in a statement provided to the News-Leader.
When pressed on the matter, Hotz said the department is considering adding "clickable" links to the emergency text messages in the future.
Hotz said the department wasn't breaking any law, though, and he's correct.
Hailey's Law allows for the clickable links but does not make them mandatory.
Hotz also said the patrol had made improvements to Amber Alerts before Hailey's Law.
Indeed, shortly after 10-year-old Hailey Owens was kidnapped and killed as an Amber Alert request sat idle in a Highway Patrol fax machine, then-Rep. Burlison wrote a provision into the budget requiring the patrol to process requests electronically.
Burlison praised the department for its advances since then and said he was happy to hear Hotz say the highway patrol is working on further improvements.
"I believe that Highway Patrol has the best intentions to get things done," he said.
In the meantime, he added, the key is getting the most passionate advocates appointed to the oversight committee.
"There, they can direct their passion and expertise directly into improving the program and helping missing children," he said.
Austin Huguelet is the News-Leader's politics reporter. He covers state government, Missouri's congressional delegation and the 2020 elections in his home state. He can be reached at 417-403-8096 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Please consider supporting local journalism at News-Leader.com/subscribe.