WOODSTOCK, Ont. – A police-led review of Ontario’s Amber Alert system was announced Tuesday following weeks of criticism directed at authorities for not issuing the alert when they learned eight-year-old Victoria Stafford had vanished.
Victoria, known as Tori, left school around 3:30 p.m. on April 8 and was reported missing to police at about 6 p.m. Police began investigating and sent a release to local media overnight and sent a broader release to more media outlets around 6 a.m. the next day.
Police now believe Tori likely died the same day she was taken, court documents suggest.
Ontario Provincial Police said Tuesday the force would co-ordinate a review of the Amber Alert system – a move that came as a petition calling for changes to the alert criteria quickly gained momentum online.
“(Tori’s) case was a contributing factor,” Insp. Dave Ross said of the review.
“However, we continually review our programs and policies, particularly in the OPP and in policing in general, to ensure they are meeting the needs of the community and certainly ensuring the safety of our children.”
When Amber Alerts are issued, an urgent notice is sent to broadcasters so that vital information about the child in danger can be issued to the public. Information is also flashed on highway signs.
By Tuesday afternoon the petition, called Tori’s Law, had amassed more than 25,000 signatures.
Ontario Correctional Services Minister Rick Bartolucci said he agreed with the petition’s request for the review.
“The OPP is going to have a fulsome review,” he said. “They’ll involve our partners, and if in fact recommendations are made to change the Amber Alert, I’ll be more than happy to work with our policing partners in that.
“At the end of the day we want the strongest possible alert mechanism in place, so I look forward to the findings of the review.”
Bartolucci wouldn’t say whether he thought the system failed Tori, calling the case “a tragic situation” he couldn’t comment on specifically.
“Certainly, in Ontario, we want to ensure that our Amber Alert procedures are the best possible procedures in order to protect all of our children,” he said.
Police have charged 28-year-old Michael Rafferty with the first-degree murder and abduction of Tori and 18-year-old Terri-Lynne McClintic with abduction and being an accessory.
Officers have been searching for Tori’s remains for nearly a week in a rural area about an hour outside Woodstock. McClintic aided police in the search for five days, but is now in a detention centre in London, Ont.
Rafferty’s lawyer Hal Mattson was asked in a telephone interview Tuesday why his client was not also co-operating with police to help find Tori’s body.
“At this particular time he is exercising his right to remain silent” and waiting for legal advice, Mattson said.
Almost immediately after the public became aware of Tori’s disappearance, police faced a backlash for not issuing an Amber Alert. Police said at the time – and would repeat many more times in the ensuing weeks – that Tori’s case did not fit the criteria.
For an Amber Alert to be triggered, police must believe a child under 18 has just been abducted, consider the child to be in danger of serious bodily harm, and have enough descriptive information of a suspect or vehicle.
For more than a week after the bubbly little girl disappeared, Oxford Community Police referred to Tori as a missing person. Only when provincial police came on board nine days later was the case labelled an abduction.
Although police were told the evening of April 8 that Tori had gone missing, it wasn’t until the next day that surveillance video was analyzed and revealed the girl was led away from the school by a mystery woman, Oxford Community Police Chief Ron Fraser has said.
People who have signed the petition have also called for harsher penalties for people convicted of crimes against children, and updating the technology the Amber Alert system uses to include text messages and other emerging technologies.
One person proposed a “Tori Alert,” which would notify the public when a young child may be in trouble, with the option of upgrading it to an Amber Alert when danger is confirmed.
In Woodstock on Tuesday, Tori’s grandmother recalled the night her daughter Tara McDonald was told by police that Tori was dead.
All she could do was sob “like someone put a butcher knife through her heart,” and cry out “my baby, my baby,” Linda Winters said.
Winters is haunted by her daughter’s anguished sobs, and said McDonald also grieved for her son Daryn, who had lost his sister and best friend.
By all accounts Tori and Daryn, who turned 11 after his sister went missing, were two peas in a pod, and he was an ever-doting and highly protective older brother. McDonald has said Daryn is having a hard time dealing with the loss of his sister and is feeling a lot of anger.
Winters, 54, would often look after Tori and Daryn, and said her last memory of the girl is taking her to school the morning she was abducted.
“As she walked into the school, she stopped and turned around as usual and gave me her smile,” Winters recalled of the girl she liked to call “Princess.”
Winters feels anger toward Tori’s abductors and killers, but believes their true punishment will come from God.
“Whatever happens to them on this Earth will not be enough,” she said.
“You could pull out their fingernails one at a time, you could make them suffer … but there is no punishment whatsoever that would (be sufficient for) taking a child.”