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Bill Helping Track Missing Special Needs Kids Moving In Fla. Legislature

Florida Channel

A bill aimed at using technological devices to help track missing people with special needs and dementia-related issues is moving through both chambers of the Florida Legislature.

It was an early Wednesday morning when nine-year-old Leo Walker went missing at his Live Oak home.

“Last year, August of 2014, Leo Walker, whom this bill is named after, disappeared in my city,” said Buddy Williams, Live Oak's Police Chief. “72 hours later, he was found dead in a body of water, but during that 72 hours, we had 15+ different agencies and over $3 million spent. I’d never seen anything like it in my life—along with over 400 personal volunteers.”

Williams says this issue is close to his heart in more ways than one since he’s the father of a disabled child with Angelman Syndrome.

“It may seem odd to some people that our children can get away from of us, and never know they’re gone,” added Williams. “But, let me tell you, a child such as a mine that does not sleep, but about four hours a day catches up with you for two full-time parents that work. I’m very fortunate enough to be able to afford an alarm system in my house, have every door, window, and everything else alarmed.”

That’s why he says he’s in favor of a bill—named after Leo—that would create a pilot program to help locate special needs kids quickly, like his daughter, to avoid what happened to little Leo.

“We lost a life of a nine-year-old boy, and it could have been prevented,” said Williams, through tears. “Two minutes, three minutes, five minutes could save a life. We GPS our phones, our cars, and everything else that’s got monetary values. Why can’t we do it for our children, our most precious resource?”

And, the bill’s sponsor is Rep. Elizabeth Porter (R-Lake City).

“HB 69 is a pilot project that would be located in Baker, Columbia, Hamilton and Suwanee counties entitled ‘Project Leo,’ and it is based on participants who have autism, autism-related spectrum diseases, dementia issues, and participants would be selected based on criteria that is developed by the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities, or the CARD, program located at the University of Florida,” said Porter.

So, what does the pilot program specifically do?

“Under Project Leo, personal devices that would aid in search-and-rescue efforts would be provided by the center to the sheriffs’ offices in participating counties, and it would require the center to provide preliminary report by December 1, 2015,” added Porter.

The Florida Developmental Disabilities Council as well as AARP are backers of the bill. The measure has the support of Rep. Darryl Rouson (D-St. Petersburg).

“My wife and I have five boys, and our youngest has cognitive issues and it’s in the family of Asperger’s,” said Rouson. “We worry about him processing information, and I think one of the best things that we can do—and I said it earlier on Representative McBurney’s bill—but this is an idea whose time has come.”

And, Gary Stein with Florida Alliance for Assistive Services and Technology, or FAAST, says while he likes the overall measure, he wishes the measure could go further. He says it’s missing three key elements.

“First off is law enforcement training because the way you approach a child with autism is different from the way you approach a different type of child, and the training is specific for that,” said Stein. “Also, there should be an inclusion criteria in that it includes fiscal stratification—although these devices seem affordable, they are to some, but others are not—and so to therefore, to make this funding go as far as possible, there should definitely be included a fiscal stratification. And, also, a public awareness so that this limited pilot program can extend far beyond those just enlisted in the program.”

And, bill sponsor, Porter says her end goal is to expand this program statewide.

“We would love to be able to role this bill out to its maximum capacity, but sometimes you have to take baby steps, and that is what we are doing out here today,” said Porter.

And, after passing the House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee Tuesday, the measure has one more stop to go before it heads to the floor. Meanwhile, a similar bill in the Senate is scheduled for its next committee hearing Thursday.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.

Sascha Cordner has more than ten years of public radio experience. It includes working at NPR member station WUFT-FM in Gainesville for several years. She's worked in both radio and TV, serving in various capacities as a reporter, producer and anchor. She's also a graduate of the University of Florida with a bachelor's degree in telecommunications. She is the recipient of 15 awards from the Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and Edward R. Murrow. Her award-winning stories include her coverage on the infamous “Dozier School for Boys” and a feature titled "Male Breast Cancer: Lost in the Sea of Pink." Currently, Sascha serves as the host and producer of local and state news content for the afternoon news program "All Things Considered" at WFSU. Sascha primarily covers criminal justice and social services issues. When she's not reporting, Sascha likes catching up on her favorite TV shows, singing and reading. Follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter:@SaschaCordner.