One of the most frightening situations occurs when a family member with developmental disabilities is missing or lost. A relative may wander away from home or perhaps get separated from you while out in the community. He or she may purposely leave a location without others being aware or knowing where he or she has gone. Sometimes this occurs when the family member simply wants to be someplace else or be involved in some other activity. Often, these situations may place them at serious risk of harm.
Fortunately, there are measures that families can take to reduce the risk of these situations. Simply being prepared by knowing what to do ahead of time can make a difference.
Have a Plan
When could this happen? First, you can think about those situations when this is likely to occur. The next step is to consider what can be done to prevent this situation or otherwise reduce the chance of the family member becoming missing. If your relative could wander away from a location if left alone even for a few moments, it would be important to identify those times when you may get distracted. For example, it may be difficult to assist your family member to get out of the car while you are unloading groceries. Also, there are places, such as crowded events or noisy gatherings, where your relative may become restless or afraid and then wander away. Another example is a family member who has a history of leaving the house without telling anyone when he or she is upset about something. In all of these examples, if family members are aware and alert during these times, the risk of someone becoming missing can be reduced.
What can you do? It is critical that family members know what to do right away when it is discovered that their relative is missing. Families should plan ahead for how they will respond so they can act immediately. How a family member responds will be different depending upon where and when this happens.
- At Home: If your relative is missing from home, the family member(s) should quickly search inside and around their home. If your relative is still missing, quickly look around the immediate neighborhood. Family members should identify those who may be able to help with this immediate search - having these phone numbers handy will save time. Possibly a trusted neighbor can be asked to help. It can be difficult to find information in the telephone directory during upsetting situations.
- Away From Home: If your relative is missing or becomes lost while away from home, the first step is to quickly get help to search the immediate area. If this occurs while in a store, the store manager should be alerted so they can assist. Many public places also have security personnel who can be asked to help. Family members shouldn't hesitate to ask others to help - most people are willing to drop everything to give their time and efforts in situations like this. Again, just knowing ahead of time who can offer assistance to help look in the immediate area can save valuable time.
Who should be contacted? If your family member has not been found after a quick search of the immediate area, calls should be made, as appropriate, to other family members, friends of the individual, or others at locations your relative is likely to go. If this does not help in locating your relative, local law enforcement (Police Department or Sheriff's Office) should be notified. If possible, someone should stay close to the main contact telephone (and stay off this phone) in case others are trying to call in with information.
What information should be provided? Valuable time can be saved if family members have certain information already written down. The information can then be easily given to law enforcement personnel or others helping with the search. Families should consider writing an Emergency Information Sheet. Copies of this sheet can be kept at home, in the car, and perhaps with a trusted neighbor or others in the event someone is discovered missing. Since these situations are highly stressful, having the information already prepared can help to make sure that all critical information is accurately communicated. Having a recent photograph of the missing person already attached to or printed on the Emergency Information Sheet is very helpful.
The following information should be included on an Emergency Information Sheet:
- Missing person's name (and name/nickname he or she goes by), home address and phone number
- Family members' names and contact information, including home, work and cell phone numbers
- Date of birth
- Height and weight
- Hair and eye color
- Distinguishing features or other unique identifiers (e.g., eyeglasses, facial hair, scars, birthmarks, tattoos, piercing)
- Mobility, prosthetic, orthotic, or other devices used such as wheelchair, walker, crutches, cane, or brace
- Individual identification such as special jewelry (e.g., medical alert bracelet/necklace, ID bracelet), identification card in wallet or purse, etc.
- Sensory, medical, or dietary issues (especially those that may result in problems if not addressed right away, e.g., insulin needed for someone with diabetes, anticonvulsant medication for someone with a seizure disorder)
- Method of communication, including how the missing person is best approached by emergency personnel
- Behaviors or characteristics that may attract attention from others
- Any prior history of being missing or lost, including locations where the individual was previously found
- Favorite attractions and locations where the individual may possibly be found
- Likes, dislikes, favorite objects/possessions
- Map or guide highlighted with nearby property or locations that pose special dangers, e.g., body of water, rocky sections, heavy traffic areas, etc.
Families may ask their 911 Call Center or local law enforcement agency to store or "red flag" the above information in their computer systems for individuals who have a history of becoming lost or missing.
Often, persons with developmental disabilities may not routinely carry identification. In the event that they become lost or missing, having personal identification can be very helpful, particularly if the individual does not communicate in a traditional fashion. Other options are available for people who prefer not to carry traditional identification in a wallet. Fashionable ID bracelets or medical alert jewelry can be engraved with a person's name and phone numbers. These items can be purchased at many retail stores as well as through various web sites on the internet.
As with any emergency, taking the time now to make a plan and be prepared can expedite the safe return of a loved one. Also, depending upon individual circumstances, precautions can be taken to lessen the risk that a family member may one day be missing. If you feel that you need assistance to develop a plan, contact your family member's Service Coordinator to help you address your concerns.