WASHINGTON COUNTY - Autism education advocate Robin Pemberton and Washington County Sheriff Kevin Crews have collaborated to launch a database that will help safeguard some of Washington County's most vulnerable residents.
The "Take Me Home" program originated in Pensacola and is a voluntary registry that allows caregivers of children and adults with cognitive and developmental disabilities to provide law enforcement with critical information that can help them better serve confused or non-verbal residents. Identifying factors such as photos, caregiver contact information, special instructions, and the individual's home address are entered into a database accessible from the officers' patrol cars. Additionally, should a 911 call be made referencing the individual's address, dispatchers will also receive an alert that will allow them to advise emergency responders of special circumstances.
Pemberton, whose 21-year-old son, Evan, has Autism, learned of the program and suggested it to Sheriff Crews after she and her son's caregiver thought about a worse-case scenario earlier this week.
"Evan became agitated and was outside, walking up and down our driveway, screaming and waving his arms," Pemberton said. "His caregiver was outside with him, trying to calm him. To look at him, you wouldn't know he had a disability. What if a passing motorist saw the scene and called 911 thinking Evan was assaulting the caregiver?"
Pemberton took her concerns to Sheriff Crews, who had already been providing training resources to his staff on how to respond to those with special needs.
Pemberton's concerns about "what if" comes with good cause.
Earlier this year, a North Miami police officer was charged with attempted manslaughter and misdemeanor culpable negligence in the shooting of an autistic man's caregiver.
In 2016, Officer Jonathan Aledda shot Charles Kinsey, a behavioral therapist who was attempting to soothe his upset autistic charge and coax him back to the group home from which he wandered. A passerby had called 911 to report a suicidal man walking down the street with a gun. Kinsey, who survived the shooting, was holding a silver toy.
Following that shooting, the Florida Legislature unanimously passed H.B. 39, which will require mandatory autism awareness training for police officers to help them recognize symptoms and respond accordingly. The bill goes into effect October 1.
Sheriff Crews says not only can implementing the registry help prevent similar incidents here; it can also help return those who have wandered away safely home.
"Because many people with disabilities such as Dementia or Autism have difficulty identifying themselves and communicating their needs, the registry provides us with information necessary to assist them and bring them home," said Crews. "The more officers know before they get where they are going, the better."
The sheriff met with Washington County school administrators and ARC officials earlier this week to discuss the program and urge them to encourage caregivers of their students and clients to take advantage of the program.
Parents can expect to receive information on the registry in their child's school packets when the new school year begins August 10.
"The registry is on a volunteer basis, but I can't stress enough how valuable and potentially life saving providing this information can be," Crews said. "The key is to fill the database up so that it can begin to work for our residents."
While the program is hosted by the Washington County Sheriff's Office, it will be accessible countywide with the Chipley Police Department also being able to access the information.
Missy Lee, Northwest Region Substance Abuse and Mental Health Director for Department of Children and Families, says the program is a step in the right direction for local law enforcement.
"Providing first responders with as much information as possible prior to their interactions with citizens is vital to the safety of both parties," Lee said. "Having the ability to recognize individuals with mental health issues is needed for all first responders. There are several trainings DCF can make available at no fee to parallel the efforts by Sheriff Crews, as we bring awareness to mental health in our community. Any organization or community business can assist by offering a place to hold these trainings. The training and materials are free."
To learn more about the Take Me Home program, visit www.autism-society.org. To enroll a loved one in the Washington County Take Me Home database, call the Washington County Sheriff's Office at 850-638-6111. To inquire about free mental health awareness trainings, contact Lee at 850-251-7350.