Sunday, March 25, 2007

New Missouri system notifies media, police of missing adults

New Missouri system notifies media, police of missing adults

By Aisha Sultan and Heather Ratcliffe

A month after Mary Lee Grobe disappeared, her picture finally made the front page of the local paper in Poplar Bluff

A delay in spreading the word infuriated her daughter, Joyce Caldwell, who said police did too little to find her 74-year-old mother, a diabetic from Butler County who is still missing after three years.

"Adult cases are kind of neglected because there's still this mind-set that maybe they walked off because they wanted to," Caldwell said. "And because of that hesitation, precious time is lost."

Missouri has joined Illinois in recognizing the urgency of missing adults, supplementing the familiar Amber Alert system to embrace all ages.

The effort is lauded by advocacy groups but viewed with a little hesitation by some who fear overwhelming the public.

In January, the Missouri Highway Patrol created an Endangered Person Advisory to notify news media and local law enforcement. It has been used three times. The first was for a child, William "Ben" Ownby, missing for four days from Franklin County. The initial report of his disappearance did not meet the stricter criteria for a full Amber Alert.

"We've been working on it since the first of the year to make local law enforcement aware that it's available," said patrol Capt. Tim Hall.

John Butler, news director of radio station KMOX (1120 AM) and media coordinator for St. Louis-area alerts, said they need to be selective. "I don't think we have 'alert fatigue' yet, but it could happen if we continue this way," he warned.

At least five other states, including Illinois, have some kind of missing adult protocol, sometimes called a Silver Alert, and seven others are working on it.

The one in Illinois started last year, with approval of a bill sponsored by state Rep. Dan Beiser, D-Alton, who has two aunts suffering from Alzheimer's. State police send a message to all departments statewide when an endangered adult with dementia goes missing.

Missouri's system goes further, applying to missing persons who suffer from serious mental or physical impairment, disappear under involuntary or unknown circumstances or leave behind circumstances suggesting they might be in danger.

Although the program has been in place for several months, state lawmakers are considering a proposal by state Sen. Scott Rupp, R-Wentzville, called Senate Bill 67, to formalize it under the Department of Public Safety. Rupp said he acted on a complaint by Caldwell.

An Amber Alert begins with a bulletin on the state's Emergency Broadcast Network, usually used for severe weather, and gets immediate attention from TV and radio stations, news websites, highway signboards and people subscribed to text message and fax services.

The Endangered Person Advisory is e-mailed to media and local police departments.

Ultimately, news media will be selective about what they run, Butler said, noting that most are sensitive to situations in which a search would benefit from public help.

Patty Iverson, of the St. Louis chapter of the Alzheimer's Association, said more than 60 percent of people with dementia will wander away at some point. Often unable to give their names or addresses, they are at risk of injury or death from exposure or accidents.

Through January, police in Missouri reported 1,480 active missing-persons cases — 692 children and 788 adults. In Illinois, there were 2,960 active cases — 1,798 children and 1,162 adults.

"So many times an adult goes missing and there is never any information on the news or radio," said Kelly Bennett of the National Center for Missing Adults, in Phoenix. "Technically it's not illegal to be a missing adult. Adults can disappear if they want to."

Caldwell says alerts will bring a needed sense of urgency and coordination. In a letter to legislators, she wrote, "My mother is gone. I don't have another mother to lose. … Helping others can help mend my own broken heart."

St Louis Post Dispatch Newspaper


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