PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Maine has become the first state in New England to create an alert system specifically designed to help locate missing persons with intellectual or developmental disabilities.
The new system is part of the state's Silver Alert Program created more than a decade ago to inform the public about missing older residents.
"This is really something of great importance to me and to the community as a whole," Meaghan Swanson of Presque Isle said.
Her son Garrett, 12, lives with autism. Like all mothers, she worries about her child.
"[Garrett] doesn't always understand dangerous situations or safety concerns."
When Garrett was 3 years old, he wandered out of the house, Swanson said.
"I was in the bathroom for a mere minute or two, going as quickly as a mother does, and within that quick moment, [Garrett] had gone out our front door and to the bottom of our driveway."
Swanson was able to grab her son as he started to walk into the busy street, but her terrifying experience isn't unique.
According to a survey of parents conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 50 percent of children with autism were reported to wander. Of those children, 25 percent were missing long enough to cause concern and were most commonly in danger of drowning or traffic injury.
"We wanted to make sure the people that are in this population would be accounted for and that we could avoid some of the worst-case scenarios," Sen. Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, said.
Stewart worked with Swanson to create the legislation for the new system that has been designed to send out an alert when someone like Garett, of any age, wonders off anywhere in Maine.
“We’ve incorporated language in the law that requires additional details to be provided to members of law enforcement and public safety [when someone goes missing]," Stewart said.
The additional details could include how to approach a child with autism and other intellectual or developmental disabilities who may not respond well to strangers, he added.
"It's comforting knowing it exists," Swanson said. "God forbid, we need to utilize this for my child, but it's in place, and it's in place for someone else's child as well."
Maine is the 18th state in the U.S. to implement this alert system.