BANGOR, Maine — Belfast resident Linda Lee stood before a wall of cameras on Monday at the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Office and talked about her 15-year-old son, who is autistic and “an escape artist.”
She stood with Sheriff Troy Morton and other area law enforcement officers behind her, as a new county-wide “wanderers” database was launched to track people, like her son, who because of a diagnosed illness or mental health problem can leave home without notifying loved ones.
“He would escape and I would have no idea where he was,” Lee said of her son. “When you’re involved with a [missing person] situation it’s completely stressful.”
That stress often means it’s hard to answer questions a 911 dispatcher asks, such as what the person looks like, Morton said.
“Sometimes the caregiver is so upset they are not able to provide us with pertinent information,” the sheriff said. “This [database] provides us with information and a photo.”
And if law enforcement officers encounter an unknown person, the database can be searched, he said.
The new database for those living with autism, dementia, Alzheimer’s and mental health or cognitive issues also provides law enforcement with the age, weight, height, caregiver contact information and gives tips about how to interact with the person to calm them, said Chad LeBree, executive director for Penobscot Regional Communications Center.
“It provides more details about triggers and calming techniques” for each individual, LeBree said.
Lee said not using her son’s nickname is one “meltdown behavior” that can make him “bolt.”
“His real name, for my son, it’s a trigger,” she said.
Morton said there is no way to know for certain how many people in Penobscot County wandered off during 2014, because of the many ways it could be listed, such as a missing person or mental health issue, but he did say, “It seems to have increased over the past couple of years.”
The database, which is completely confidential, also works in reverse, the sheriff added, saying that if a registered caregiver is in an accident, a flag will tell law enforcement that someone needs to check on the person registered.
Lee approached Belfast Police Chief Mike McFadden in early 2014 about creating the database, and the Belfast-area “Wanderers” program started in May with the police departments in Belfast, Searsport and Rockland partnering with the Waldo County Sheriff’s Office. Other wanderers databases have been set up in Knox, Lincoln and Somerset counties and another is in the works for Franklin County, Lee said.
Cathy Dionne, director of the Autism Society of Maine, who has a son with autism, said there are more than 400 families in Penobscot County dealing with a child or adult with autism. The new database will go far in providing important information immediately to those searching for the lost or missing person, which is often a key in finding them.
“It really comes down to saving a life,” Dionne said.
Those interested in signing up for the Penobscot County wanderers database may do so at the Penobscot Regional Communications Center’s website, Penobscotrcc.com.