Isabel Celis vanished from her Tucson home last weekend, 33 years after Etan Patz went missing from his SoHo neighborhood. Isabel is 6, Etan's age when he disappeared, and, like him, she was last seen wearing a blue outfit.

In the three decades that separate these missing children, child-safety awareness has come a long way. So why did Arizona police hesitate to mobilize the AMBER alert in the direct aftermath of Isabel's disappearance?

America has a history of misappropriating resources when it comes to restoring lost children. The country's first nationwide search for a missing child occurred 138 years ago. After kidnappers stole Charley Ross from the front yard of his Philadelphia home in 1874, newspapers, telegraphs and Pinkerton detective fliers spread word of the abduction, ransom demand and reward monies.

Nobody found Charley, largely because the young, urban police force had no precedent to follow. Authorities wasted crucial time in the first hours following Charley's disappearance, and the family exhausted its financial resources wading through leads pertaining to other missing children, some of whom had already been found.

The following year, Pennsylvania was the first state to change the crime of kidnapping from a misdemeanor into a felony. But it wasn't until the disappearance of the Lindbergh baby 58 years later, in 1932, that kidnapping became a federal crime.

Charles Lindbergh Jr.'s kidnapping also resulted in a nationwide search and manhunt, but not even it prompted the government to organize and centralize the records of missing children. Another 50 years, and a nationwide search for Etan Patz, would occur before that happened.

Largely due to the lobbying efforts of families like the Patzes, Congress passed the Missing Children's Assistance Act in 1984. This law mandated that the FBI store the information of the missing in the National Crime Information Center. That same year, President Reagan opened the National Center of Missing and Exploited Children, in Washington, D.C., and the face of Etan Patz appeared on milk cartons throughout the country.

While it is understandable that authorities fear that an increase in AMBER alerts will reduce the public's attention span, are missing children not worth the risk?

The 1996 abduction and murder of Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old Texas girl, led to the 2001 implementation of the AMBER alert, the announcement that flashes on billboards and interrupts broadcasts soon after a child is taken.

Like the unofficial milk-carton campaign, AMBER alerts raise awareness by bringing a public threat into private spaces and activating community vigilance.

But not all missing children can benefit from this emergency communication system.

Because authorities fear that an overused system will desensitize the public, a disappearance has to meet certain criteria to warrant an AMBER alert. According to the websites of the Department of Justice and the National Center of Missing and Exploited Children, investigators need to suspect that a non-family member has abducted the child; they need enough information to describe the victim or criminal; and they need to believe that the child faces grave physical harm or imminent death.

Every state has an AMBER plan, but states can vary in how they assess other qualifying criteria, such as age. In Pennsylvania, a missing child can be 18; in Illinois, no older than 16; and in Kansas, 17.

This difference alone can create conflict in interstate collaboration.

The parents of Isabel Ceris called 9-1-1 soon after realizing that their daughter was missing. For whatever reason, the Tucson police did not immediately issue an AMBER alert.

While it is understandable that authorities fear that an increase in AMBER alerts will reduce the public's attention span, are missing children not worth the risk?

Even though meteorologists have a history of overestimating predictions, weather alerts frequently interrupt programming, and the mention of "storm" lengthens grocery-store lines.

Couldn't more AMBER alerts condition the public to become more vigilant, not less interested?

The first two hours following a child's disappearance are the most crucial in the attempt to find him or her. Instead of waiting for another disturbing disappearance to prompt the nation's progress in child-protection services, the Department of Justice needs to improve the implementation of AMBER alerts by allowing more disappearances to qualify for instant community action. n

Carrie Hagen lives and works in Philadelphia.