By Charlotte Aguilar
It is the worst fear of a parent or caregiver of vulnerable children and adults — that they wander away from their protective environment into the dangers of strangers, traffic and those who might take advantage of them, unable to say who they are and where they belong or to ask for help.
Amber and Silver alerts have gone a long way to help return these lost people of all ages to loving care — but now Bellaire police are about to create another safety net — “Home Safe Bellaire.”
Led by Assistant Chief Onesimo “Mo” Lopez, Sgt. Russell Brown and Officer John Edwards, the department is close to launching a registration and notification program designed to help residents or those spending time within Bellaire’s borders who suffer from autism, Alzheimer’s, Down Syndrome, dementia and other challenges.
The Bellaire PD will offer parents, guardians and caregivers the chance to register critical information and documentation — details ranging from photos and a physical description to behavioral characteristics — which will go into a database that will allow officers to recognize someone with special needs, returning them safely and compassionately to where they belong.
Those eligible for the program will have to meet basic criteria: That they live in the city of Bellaire or attend school, daycare or assisted living in the city. Authorities recommend participation for individuals who are unable to communicate basic information and/or who may be prone to wander or run away from their residence or school due to a diagnosed medical condition.
The need for such a program has been high-profile in recent months. First there was a Silver Alert issued statewide on a West University senior who slipped away from his family, rented a car, and drove to another part of the state. An Amber Alert was declared recently for an autistic Bellaire boy who was missing from his home. He walked along busy Beechnut Street, under the West Loop, along a feeder road and through a busy parking lot during the afternoon rush hour to get a toy from Target in Meyerland Plaza. He was returned home when shoppers and store personnel intervened after seeing the alert and his photo broadcast on television.
Although such safety net programs exist in other communities — going under names such as “Take Me Home,” “Shepherd,” and “Safe Return” — there’s no broad clearinghouse for information, says Bellaire Police Chief Byron Holloway. “We are doing as most police agencies do and build(ing) our own program,” he said.
With details in place, the program is expected to be launched and a website activated this month, after staff is trained, according to Holloway.
He points out that Bellaire has participated in the State of Texas Emergency Assistance Registry (STEAR), and it’s looking at how that will meld with Bellaire’s new efforts to “create a more complete program.”
Holloway says that the traditional focus has been more on elderly than children and that “we need to do a better job when it comes to parents and caregivers dealing with children…with functional limitations.”
He gives credit to Liz Selig, the Bellaire mother of a 7-year-old autistic son whose own experience in May led her to investigate what could be done to better protect residents with unique needs. She learned there was no system in place in Bellaire to enter information about her son after he went missing from their home and wasn’t able to convey his name or his address.
“He walked down to the Evergreen Pool because he wanted to swim,” she said. “Luckily a lifeguard intervened and Bellaire PD was contacted. When I was reunited with him that evening, I asked the police officer if he could be added to a database in the event that this ever happened again. The officer said there wasn’t a system he was aware of.”
Selig was prepared to create her own database of information about her son and give access to police when she learned about the Take Me Home program and brought it to the attention of Holloway.
He gives her credit for “bringing the topic to the forefront.”
Selig calls autism “overwhelming, at best,” and believes the program will save lives.
“Many people who don’t know about autism tend to say, ‘What kind of person allows their child to leave the house alone or run across a parking lot?’” she said. “I probably would have said the same thing before our autism journey started.”
She’s already organizing parents and caregivers in West University to work toward creating a similar program there.