Help Me Home designed for those with memory, communication issues

by: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Tobi Rates, executive director of the Autism Society of Oregon, cuddles with her 9-year-old son, Jacob, in their southeast Portland home. Rates believes Washington Countys Help Me Home program could be taken statewide.When a child with autism or a senior with dementia walks away from home, the wait while the search for the person is under way can be terrifying for the family — and perhaps equally so for the one who’s lost.

In Washington County, however, the wait to find someone who is missing might be significantly shorter in the future, thanks to a newly created program from the Washington County Sheriff’s Office.

“Help Me Home,” which went active Sept. 20, is a voluntary enrollment registry geared to help locate at-risk individuals suffering from developmental disabilities, autism, mental health disorders, traumatic brain injuries or dementias such as Alzheimer’s disease.

“It’s meant for folks who, if they leave their residence, are not able to provide their name or where they live or other vital information needed to get them back to where they belong,” explained Marcia Langer, senior program educator with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO), which oversees the program.

WCSO maintains the Help Me Home database, which includes a photograph and characteristics of each person who is registered, such as height, weight, color of eyes and hair. When a deputy plugs in those identifying characteristics, photos of individuals with similar identifiers appear on the officer’s computer, helping officers figure out who the person is as well as providing emergency caregiver contact information.

County deputies would be able to access the database from computers in their patrol vehicles.

“A deputy can enter identifying markers, and that would bring up photos for those on the registry that would match that,” said Langer. “Then it provides immediate caregiver information on how to approach the person and who to contact to get them home.”

Tobi Rates of southeast Portland, executive director of the Marylhurst-based Autism Society of Oregon, said she believes the Help Me Home program is very beneficial.

“I was quite happy to hear about this tool to help keep children safe,” said Rates, whose 9-year-old son, Jacob, is autistic. “It is nice to have another tool available. Hopefully it doesn’t need to be used all that often. We want to make sure families are aware of this program and direct them to this service. Even if people need help to cover the cost, we’d help with that.”

Rates pointed out that her own son is at risk for running off.

“My son is impulsive,” she said. “If he sees something, he might take off, and if he did, he certainly couldn’t give any information. When they (autistic children) are stressed, their verbal abilities are the first to go.”

Trevin Butler, adult foster home licensing manager for the Oregon Department of Human Resources in Washington and Columbia counties, said Help Me Home is likely to make a significant impact.

“We’re excited about it. It’s a great opportunity to help the population we serve — seniors and people with physical disabilities,” said Butler. “This would not take the place of preventing someone from wandering, but it’s a valuable tool. It’s a great opportunity for our clients, and we are making sure our foster home providers are familiar with it.”

Langer said the program was created by WCSO, but the impetus came from local families.

“The idea actually came from the community,” she said. “A group of parents of children with autism said they would like an endangered persons’ registry. And we have an aging population in this county, with more seniors with dementia, so we’re trying to get the word out by connecting with senior living homes and special education schools.”

Those wanting to register someone into the program can simply complete an enrollment form, sign an agreement and pay a $20 fee for a two-year period. All the information is kept confidential and is available only to law enforcement officers.

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