It seems like a classic case demanding some sort of public alert: Two young girls kidnapped by a deranged mother disappear for two months.

But when Tammy Kongkham allegedly snatched her daughters Kelly and Kimberly outside their Juniata Park school on Oct. 16, Pennsylvania State Police didn't issue an Amber Alert, which would have publicized the disappearance nationally to faster locate them.

Those involved say that this failure illustrates serious shortcomings in a federal system, implemented in 2002, that missing-persons investigators hoped would hasten the recovery of endangered children and the arrests of their abductors.

Federal law requires all states to have child-abduction alert systems in place, but the varying state-to-state interpretations often cause tension and confusion, according to an Associated Press study published last month.

The AP also found that the law has no teeth, because the federal government does not enforce it.

Still, missing-child alerts have found success here in Pennsylvania. Twenty-three children abducted from Pennsylvania have been recovered as a direct result of the system.

In Kelly and Kimberly Kongkham's case, city investigators and Department of Human Resources workers requested an Amber Alert.

But state police officials decided it didn't meet the the criteria.

In Pennsylvania, that criteria requires that a child was abducted and not a runaway or throwaway; the child must also be under 18 years old and believed to be in danger of death or serious bodily harm, according to the state's Amber Alert Web site.

"If those two criteria are not both being met, then they don't issue an Amber Alert," said State Trooper Danea Alston of the Philadelphia troop, adding that the court-issued custody order coupled with Tammy Kongham's mental illness would not necessarily indicate that the children are in danger.

"I can't say the court issue really doesn't have weight," Alston said. "All I can say is that for an alert to be activated it has to meet those two criteria." *