Cities offering tracking service to families with autistic kids
Wristbands worn by people with Alzheimer's, autism and other impairments can be tracked by police if the wearer wanders away.
July 28, 2010|By Carmen Greco Jr., Special to the Tribune
When Nancy Wiskari's son with autism slipped away from the back yard of their Naperville home a few years ago, her first emotion was helplessness.
"He was gone for a very short period of time, but when he was gone, I realized immediately how unprepared I was, and I was terrified I had put him in that position," Wiskari said.
It's an ordeal she hopes to never put her son through again, now that 9-year-old Carson wears a thin wristband outfitted with a radio transmitter that will allow authorities to find him within minutes if he wanders off.
Carson was the first Naperville resident to use the human tracking technology after the city's Police Department started the program four years ago. Today, the families of 25 children and adults with autism, Alzheimer's and other neurological disorders use the devices.
"At first we thought the families of seniors with Alzheimer's would be our main audience, but it has become wildly popular in the autism community," said Naperville police Officer Marita Manning.
Like Alzheimer's patients, people with autism can have a hard time communicating to someone else that they are lost and need help, Manning said. They often will not respond to searchers who are calling their names.
"They are mostly people who are non-verbal," Manning said, "and it just takes a second for someone to get away, through no fault of their families or caregivers."
Naperville was one of the first towns in northern Illinois to offer the program, and others have followed, including Orland Park, Palos Hills, Buffalo Grove, Huntley, Crystal Lake and McHenry. Meanwhile, Crest Hill, Lockport and Romeoville expect to have their tracking programs running in a few months.
With the continued aging of the country's population, and with autism rates still ticking upward, Lockport police Officer Jeren Szmergalski expects the program to grow along with those demographic trends.
"We might not see a huge amount of calls on patients this year, but slowly through the years, I'm sure the calls will increase," Szmergalski said. "It's better to have a system already in place than to sit back and then say we should have had it when we are faced with an incident."
Buffalo Grove is rolling out the program and will start promoting it in early August at a communitywide crime prevention event and at Buffalo Grove Days festival.
Crime prevention Officer Paul Jamil said, "We get calls for kids with autism, Down syndrome and other special needs that wander away from the home on a regular basis, and it will be nice to offer this to residents."
Jamil said the receivers used by officers have a range of about a mile on the ground and 5 miles in the air, should authorities perform aerial searches.
Mike Chylewski, vice president of Care Trak International, headquartered in downstate Murphysboro, said the company has sold the tracking devices to about 600 police departments and sheriff's offices nationwide, including 25 in Illinois.
The wristbands and tracking equipment used by police have led to 2,000 rescues across the country since the wristband was used in 1986, Chylewski said. The success rate has been 100 percent, he said.
"The reason it's so high is that we educate people about wandering children and adults. The key is to put in those 911 calls immediately. We've found them on moving buses. We've tracked a guy to a McDonald's. We've found them covered over in tobacco fields in Virginia," Chylewski said.
Care Trak is a subsidiary of Wildlife Materials Inc., which first used the technology to track endangered animals before applying it to humans. Mobile receivers pick up signals from the wristbands through walls and other obstructions, Chylewski said.
"The beauty of it is it's incredibly simple," he said. "I can take you out and make you a tracking expert in 20 minutes."
The cost to a typical department is about $5,000 to get started, Chylewski said. Private organizations in Lockport, Crest Hill and Romeoville raised money for the equipment, and Lockport Township will pay the $250 wristband price for any resident who enrolls in the program.
In Naperville, the city's Exchange Club has been the program's largest benefactor.
Lockport Township Supervisor Judy Batusich said she hopes every police department in Will County eventually adopts the wristband program in the face of explosive growth in the county's senior population. In the past several years, seven new senior developments have sprouted in Lockport Township alone.
"It's dear to me because my father had Alzheimer's," Batusich said, "and I do know what the caregivers go through. My dad was a wanderer."
In the four years that Carson Wiskari has worn the soft, vinyl wristband, he has not wandered too far from his mother's side, but she said the extra level of protection has given her a peace of mind she did not have before.
"This is better than a GPS, because it goes through buildings, so if he goes in somebody's garage, we can find him," she said. "You don't have any time to spare when your child is missing."
July 28, 2010 by Carmen Greco Jr., Special to the Chicago Tribune