Registries for Persons Prone to Wandering
By Keith Stambaugh
Are you aware of those afflicted by Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia in your community? Do you know how to calm community members who have autism? Could you effectively communicate with these persons?
Individuals with these and other conditions are known to wander, a concerning problem. “Six in 10 people living with dementia will wander at least once; many do so repeatedly. Although common, wandering can be dangerous — even life-threatening — and the stress of this risk weighs heavily on caregivers and family.”1 Also, “Approximately half of children with autism display wandering behavior, which may occur when the child tries to pursue something of interest or escape from something disturbing (like a loud noise or crowd).”2
This important issue deserves attention, and we should do all we can for these individuals and their families.
Law Enforcement Help
The Silver Spring Township Police Department in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, created voluntary registries for officers to use in assisting individuals who wander and their loved ones. This valuable information helps reduce stress on families, lessen the time and manpower needed to handle incidents, and possibly save lives.
Sergeant Stambaugh serves with the Silver Spring Township Police Department in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, and is a graduate of FBI National Academy Session 282.
Initiating and implementing these registries was simple. I started by looking at the information needed for a missing person entry in the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database and for the department as well as the best details to release to news and social media.
Then, I created a one-page form, accessible on our department website, to be voluntarily filled out by a family member and submitted in person or electronically. The form also requests an updated or recent photo of the subject. Completed forms are scanned into our computer system and stored in a file accessible by agency personnel via any station or mobile computer.
Not only are the registries an efficient way to manage and share information but they are also effective in reducing the time one or more officers will be unavailable for other calls.
When the family of an individual on our Alzheimer’s/Dementia Registry reports them missing, an NCIC entry can be made quickly, and a BOLO (be on the lookout) can be relayed to local and regional agencies. A media release and social media posts with a photo of the individual can also go out. The efficiency alone can make the difference in finding them.
We also use this data when officers encounter persons they believe may have Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. Perhaps the subjects cannot identify themselves and/or provide the names, addresses, or phone numbers of family. If they are on our registry, we can compare photos and determine their identity. Within minutes, we can contact a family member.
“More than 6 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s. By 2050, this number is projected to rise to nearly 13 million.”3
This registry, which focuses on individuals with autism or other conditions like Down syndrome, contains the same type of information as the Alzheimer’s/Dementia Registry along with additional details to help us more effectively assist the person. I spoke with experienced counselors who work with such individuals to see what data would be important for law enforcement to know. The information they suggested is geared toward the best way to communicate, reduce stress, and avoid physical restraint or force.
Like Alzheimer’s patients, those with autism or other conditions may not be able to tell you their name and address or provide a phone number for family. If on our registry, we can match them with the photo provided and call an emergency contact.
“About 1 in 44 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder. ...”4
“This valuable information helps reduce stress on families, lessen the time and manpower needed to handle incidents, and possibly save lives.”
To address privacy concerns, the registries are voluntary. Additionally, boxes on the form that contain information to be released to the media if the person goes missing are marked in red. There is also a notice of this at the top of the form. All other information is kept within the police department.
Minor maintenance is needed to keep the registry up to date. Once a year, I contact the family to ensure they wish to keep the individual on the registry and that the resident has not relocated or passed on. For those who will remain on the registry, I also request an updated photo.
The registries give families another level of comfort, and our efforts to be more aware of the community members in these categories are well received. While there are no guarantees, there are also no downfalls in being better prepared for these situations. If this program saves one life, it will have been worth the effort. I encourage you to implement registries like these in your community.
“Not only are the registries an efficient way to manage and share information but they are also effective in reducing the time one or more officers will be unavailable for other calls.”
Law enforcement agencies should ensure any registries of personally identifiable information are administered and maintained in accordance with applicable laws, regulations, and policies.
Sergeant Stambaugh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 “Wandering,” Alzheimer’s Association, accessed November 21, 2022, https://www.alz.org/help-support/caregiving/stages-behaviors/wandering.
2 Alyssa Siegel, “When Your Special Needs Child Wanders,” Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, September 6, 2018, https://www.chop.edu/resources/when-your-special-needs-child-wanders.
3 “Quick Facts,” Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures, Alzheimer’s Association, accessed November 21, 2022, https://www.alz.org/alzheimers-dementia/facts-figures.
4 “Data and Statistics on Autism Spectrum Disorder,” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed November 21, 2022, https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html.