A new Los Angeles County program that uses electronic bracelets to find missing people with dementia or autism was launched partly in response to the death of Nancy Paulikas, a 55-year-old woman with Alzheimer’s disease who wandered away from her husband during a visit to a museum.
During the desperate search for his wife that began in late 2016, Kirk Moody grew increasingly frustrated by the lack of communication between law enforcement and other agencies.
“I called every county office there is,” Moody recalled Wednesday. “And I found myself explaining things over and over because it was clear they weren’t talking to each other.”
With Moody’s input, the county started LA Found with the goal of establishing procedures to help police, sheriffs, fire departments, nursing homes and hospitals coordinate during a search.
The cornerstone of the program is a system of bracelets voluntarily worn by vulnerable people that can be located using electronic receivers carried in LA County Sheriff’s Department squad cars and helicopters.
More than 250 residents have been outfitted since October with the bracelets maintained by Project Lifesaver, a public safety nonprofit. At least four missing people have been located thanks to the technology, including a 53-year-old woman with dementia who wandered away from her family around Christmastime, Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn said.
While some technology that tracks people can raise red flags about privacy, experts said in this case the upside outweighs any concerns.
The program “seems like a very good potential use of location-tracking technology,” said John Villasenor, a professor of engineering and public policy at University of California, Los Angeles.
Wandering is a common problem associated with dementia and autism. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, 60% of people with dementia will wander at some point. A study by the Interactive Autism Network found that 49% of children with autism will engage in wandering behavior.
While the vast majority of these individuals are recovered, wandering cases can end in tragedy. Paulikas’ remains were discovered on a hillside in March 2017, five months after she walked away from Moody while the couple explored the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
To prevent similar tragedies, LA Found seeks to have the county’s thousands of employees be “the eyes and ears” during a search, said Hahn, who authored the initiative eventually passed by the Board of Supervisors.
“The county has law enforcement, we have our transit systems, we have our county hospital and nursing facilities. We have the coroner on the lookout for a Jane Doe or a John Doe,” Hahn said Wednesday. “And we’re making sure that they’re all talking to each other.”
Moody, 60, said he considers the renewed collaborative efforts “a huge victory” and he’s gratified that Paulikas has become the face of the new program.
Initial money for the bracelets came from the county, but funding has grown through donations from various state and local organizations.
Hahn said she believes the program is the first of its kind in the nation. She said officials from Colorado and other California counties have called expressing interest in replicating it.
LA Found is coordinated by the county’s Sheriff’s Department and Workforce Development, Aging and Community Services Department.