New Emergency Alerts Would Help Find Missing NJ Residents with Disabilities

Andrew Kitchenman | February 26, 2015 | Health Care
People with intellectual, developmental disabilities could be at risk if they wander away from family or caregivers

Assemblywoman Pamela R. Lampitt (D-Burlington and Camden)
New Jersey has Amber Alerts to help find missing children. Silver Alerts are for people with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. MVP Emergency Alerts could be on the way for those with intellectual or developmental disabilities.

Advocates for the new alert system say that residents with these disabilities sometimes wander away from their families or caregivers, but can be ignored by passersby who aren’t aware of their conditions, potentially putting their lives at risk.

That’s why legislators are looking to institute the state’s third emergency alert system as a way of stopping missing-persons crises and save lives.

Assemblywoman Pamela R. Lampitt (D-Burlington and Camden) said at a hearing on a bill (A-2709/S-2668) that would create the system that while she wasn’t aware of incidents in the state that would have benefited from having the system in place, she wanted to be proactive and prevent crises.

“These individuals when they become flustered, they become upset, they can become very non-approachable,” Lampitt said, adding that other people — including police officers — may believe that they’re acting irrationally due to drug or alcohol use. “They’re irrational because they’re scared,” she added.

Lampitt said that the law was carefully written so that the system would not be overused. On Tuesday, people across New Jersey were woken by an Amber Alert message sent through cellphones about a 3year-old Delaware girl taken by her father. The girl was later found safe in Massachusetts and her father was arrested.

At the hearing in May, Lampitt said alerts wouldn’t just be arbitrarily posted — the person must be at risk of death or serious bodily injury to trigger a response from law enforcement and broadcast outlets.

The system would be a voluntary collaborative effort between state and local police and the media, according to the bill. The State Police Missing Persons and Child Exploitation Unit would assist the lead law enforcement agency in investigations if requested.

The alerts would include a description of the missing person, notice that the person may appear agitated or upset, and instructions on whether or how the person should be approached. They would also include information on how to contact the state police or other appropriate law enforcement agencies.

In order to teach the public what the term “MVP Emergency” means, the bill would require the state attorney general’s office to undertake a public awareness campaign. Funding for the campaign isn’t specified in the bill.

The proposal has gained a strong vote of support from organizations such as the Arc of New Jersey that advocate for and serve people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Sharon Levine, director of governmental affairs for the Arc of New Jersey, said that it never hurts for the public to have more information.

“I think this is an important added resource. If it ends up helping someone, then why not take advantage of the opportunity?” Levine said.

She said that for some people with developmental disabilities, wandering away from a safe area or a responsible caregiver is a serious safety issue.

“Challenges with communication, social interaction and attention can put individuals with developmental disabilities at risk for becoming lost or injured,” she said.

Maureen Shea of the New Jersey Association of Community Providers also said the proposed system would add needed precautions. The New Jersey Council on Developmental Disabilities, Home Care Association of New Jersey, New Jersey Association of Jewish Federations, and Alliance for the Betterment of Citizens with Disabilities also supported the bill.

Rescues of more than 600 children have been attributed to the Amber Alert system since it was first used in 1998.

The Assembly passed the bill 66-0 in December. The Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee released the Senate version earlier this month, with all seven members who were present voting in favor.