GPD helps wanderers get home

The Enterprise — Anne Hayden Harwood

Take Me Home: Guilderland Police Officer Joseph Mazzone starts up a computer program in a patrol car, that is also available in the dispatch room, containing a database of people who might wander, including children with autism and the elderly. The program allows officers and caregivers to work together to find someone who has gone missing, and allows officers to more easily identify someone found wandering who is unable to communicate.

GUILDERLAND  — A local mother, who has a son on the autism spectrum, initiated a program in the Guilderland Police Department that helps locate children or elderly people who have wandered away from home.

The Take Me Home program, used nationally, and in Canada and England, was started in 2003 by a police officer in Pensacola, Fla., and gained traction in 2010 after a 5-year-old Kansas boy with autism wandered from his home and drowned in a local pond.

Officer Jimmy Donohoe, the Florida man who created Take Me Home, wanted to compile a registry of non-verbal people, who might be at risk for wandering, so that when a person was reported missing, authorities would have information at their fingertips to help them in their search. He is the father of an autistic child.

The program also provides authorities with a database to search if someone is found wandering who hasn’t been reported missing.

Many children with autism are prone to wandering, which has led to numerous deaths by drowning or traffic accidents, according to a study conducted by Dr. Paul A. Law, director of the Interactive Autism Network at Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, Md.

In 2010, nine children with autism died in the United States, after wandering, all of them by drowning.

Mason Medlam, the Kansas boy who went missing and drowned in a pond, might have been saved if local authorities had been using the Take Me Home program, and known that he was fascinated by water.

Kim Matthews, whose 5-year-old boy is on the autism spectrum, asked Guilderland Police Officer Joseph Mazzone, who was responding to an emergency call for her son’s cut finger, if the town had any programs for “wanderers.”

Matthews had read a story about the Take-Me-Home program just the day before Mazzone answered the call for her son’s cut finger.

“He encouraged me to approach the chief if I wanted to get it going, and said he’d be willing to set it up,” said Matthews.

“In my head, I don’t think of my son as a wanderer, but you never know,” she said.

Matthews approached Police Chief Carol Lawlor, who approved the program, and Mazzone contacted Officer Donohoe in Florida.

“I called him during a hurricane, fully expecting to leave him a message, but he picked up right away and said he’d be happy to help in any way he could,” said Mazzone.

The Guilderland Police Department received the software for the program, free of charge, Mazzone said, less than one week after he placed the call to Donohoe.

The program was officially “live” in Guilderland as of Jan. 18, 2013.

The software is free to any police department that requests it, and it is also free for caretakers to enroll a person.

A downloadable application is available on the Guilderland Police Department’s website.

“We encourage it for anyone who might benefit,” said Mazzone, listing non-verbal children or children with other disabilities, as well as individuals with dementia.

The Guilderland Police Department’s policy for the Take Me Home program states that it is for persons who “are unable to communicate their identity or other information about themselves, or who may become disoriented or act in a manner that could be misinterpreted by first responders.”

Applicants include basic information such as name, physical description, and type of disability, as well as sensory issues, favorite attractions or locations, atypical behavior, favorite objects, and preferred method of communication.

Mazzone explained that, with that information, officers approaching an individual who has wandered away from home can call them by a familiar nickname, strike up a conversation about the person’s favorite things, and generally avoid scaring the person.

“For example, if I knew a child loved Disney movies, I would have no problem pulling up a movie on my phone and letting him watch it to keep calm, until we could reunite him with his parents,” said Mazzone.

“My son loves the show The Wiggles, so if someone started talking about The Wiggles, it might lure him in,” said Matthews.

All of the information compiled in the database is kept under lock and key, the computer files are encrypted, and it is all kept confidential.

Mazzone said that roughly 50 people are registered with Guilderland’s Take Me Home program, and officers are asked to encourage registration whenever they encounter a person who might benefit.

The police department has also reached out to local nursing homes and schools.

“We haven’t had to use it since we started it up,” said Mazzone. “We hope we never have to, but it’s nice to know that it’s there if we need it.”

“Any way that you can preventively protect your child is important,” said Matthews. “It could literally be a lifesaver.”

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