For so many people, the holidays mean a break from routine — and while many look forward to this time of year, it can also be stressful, especially for people living with dementia or a developmental disability, such as Down syndrome or autism. Those moments of anxiety or commotion can result in them wandering away from safety.
Forty-nine percent of kids with autism have wandered from safe supervision, and 60 percent of people living with dementia will wander at least once. In Minnesota, we have seen these stories come to tragic ends.
In 2015, Hamza Elmi, a 6-year-old boy with autism wandered away from his family’s home in St. Cloud. His disappearance launched a search that brought together police officers, reporters, and community members. Sadly, the next morning Hamza’s body was found in the Mississippi River just blocks from his home. As John Bodette of the St. Cloud Times put it at the time, “Our entire community has lost a son.”
Two years later, in 2017, the Duluth community was devastated by the loss of Mary and Ron Tarnowski, who had been married for 59 years. Decades earlier, Mary had suffered a stroke, and Ron took up responsibilities as her caregiver. But as he grew older and began to show signs of early-stage dementia, that work became harder for him to manage. One afternoon Ron and Mary drove away from their Duluth home with no cell phone. Days later, following a prolonged search, their car was recovered in a swampy area 30 miles away. Neither of them survived.
For years, the Missing Alzheimer’s Disease Patient Alert Program has been incredibly successful in reuniting wandering people with dementia with their families. That’s why in 2017 I led a bipartisan bill with Iowa Republican Senator Chuck Grassley to increase funding and broaden the scope of this program to support wandering kids with developmental disabilities — it’s now called the Missing Americans Alert Program. Our bill also included funding to educate caregivers on how to prevent wandering and equip law enforcement with the tools needed to recover missing loved ones, including potentially lifesaving tracking equipment like transmitter bracelets. The legislation was named Kevin and Avonte’s Law, in honor of two boys who died as a result of wandering incidents.
This vital program was set to expire, so Senator Grassley and I knew we had to act. I am proud to announce that we were able to extend it through 2027 with the Kevin and Avonte’s Law Reauthorization Act, which was passed as part of the National Defense Authorization Act. We couldn’t have gotten this done without the incredible work of a broad coalition of disability and patient advocates who came together to support this legislation.
For law enforcement, this means a higher chance of reuniting families. For caregivers, this means lifesaving training on wandering prevention. For loved ones, this means peace of mind. And for people living with disabilities, this means living in a country with better resources to keep them safe.
In the year ahead, I look forward to continuing to work with our state’s disability communities to make sure that every Minnesotan with disabilities is able to live a safe and healthy life.
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