How first responders command the emergency: When someone with special needs goes missing

The call comes into the police department for a missing person. Sometimes it’s regarding an adult who didn’t show up for work. It might be a teenager who has run away from home. It might be a child who got separated from their parents while on an outing.

Police train for these kinds of missing person cases. But what happens when the missing person has special needs and may be unable to communicate with authorities?

That’s exactly what happened when Kenneth Parks, of New Bedford, wandered away from his group during a visit to Cushman Park in Fairhaven on March 17.

Parks, 73, diagnosed with autism, is non-verbal and only speaks in grunts especially when he gets anxious, according to his caregivers.

After missing for nearly 22 hours, Parks was found sitting in someone’s car. He was unharmed, but was taken to the hospital by ambulance for an assessment.

Found Safe:73-year-old New Bedford man with autism was missing from Fairhaven

Skills needed when police face this kind of response

“All officers have received classroom training regarding dealing with persons with special needs,” said Fairhaven Sgt. Timothy F. Souza. He said the training happens at the department’s annual in-service academies or for the newer officers in their initial full time police academy. “Aside from the police academy trainings we have a few officers in our department who are assigned to the SEMLEC Search and Rescue and Mobile Command Units. These officers are specifically trained for these types of responses.”

SEMLEC (Southeastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council) is a mutual aid consortium comprised of resources from the police departments of 30 cities and towns. It responds when requested by a chief of police to assist with search and rescue, special events, or major crimes.

SEMLEC was activated in the search for Parks along with Fairhaven, Acushnet, and Mattapoisett Police Departments, Fairhaven Fire Department, Fairhaven Harbormaster, New Bedford Police Department Marine Unit, Bristol County Sheriff’s Office K-9 Unit, SEMLEC Search & Rescue, SEMLEC Mobile Command Center, SEMLEC Dive Team, SEMLEC Bicycle Unit, Mass State Police Special Emergency Response Team, Mass State Police Air Wing, Mass Environmental Police and the Department of Conservation & Recreation.

Searching for Kenneth Parks

Parks, who lives in a residential group home, was on an outing in Cushman Park in Fairhaven when he wandered away from the group. At around 2 p.m. he was reported missing to police.

“An initial call was made to dispatch and officers responded,” Souza said. “The shift supervisor and his team immediately flooded the area.”

He said officers talked to the last known person who saw Parks and then branched out into the general area stopping people and asking if they had seen Parks.

Other police and fire assets were then brought to the scene to expand the search perimeter, he said.

“In this case initially SEMLEC Search and Rescue was called as well as Fairhaven Fire and Bristol County Sheriff’s K-9 Units,” Souza noted. “Within a short period of time we had other assets such as the Mass State Police Air Wing division assisting us as well. During the two-day search we had approximately 12 to 15 different agencies involved.”

“SEMLEC became part of the search for Mr. Parks once the unit was called by the Fairhaven police department,” said Somerset Police Chief George McNeil, control chief for SEMLEC Search and Rescue. “The callout for search and rescue is requested by the participating municipality usually when they’ve exhausted their resources but this can change, particularly if weather conditions are poor or cold. Callout times can also vary depending on the missing person’s age, medical condition, or other factors which may require a sooner response.”

McNeil said a command post was set up inside a command vehicle similar to a large mobile home that has the ability to communicate with all agencies, including the State Police and its Air Wing. A large flat screen TV is used to map grids of areas to be searched, starting with the location where the person was last seen. The grids get expanded as the search widens, he said.

Sheriff Thomas Hodgson rolled out his department’s K9 unit almost right away in the search. K9 Capt. Paul Douglas received the initial call for assistance from Fairhaven police and was told there was a missing senior citizen with autism and K9 support from the BCSO was being requested, wrote BCSO information officer Jonathan Darling, on the department’s social media page.

The entire K9 unit responded.

When the search involves someone with special needs

“If we can, we get information from a family member or caretaker on exactly how that person should be approached,” Souza said. “Every person is different. Autistic individuals are not in general volatile, but we need to take a careful approach toward them so as to not frighten them, and doing our best to put them at ease with us.”

“In Mr. Parks’ case we had conversations with his caretaker and the people at the place he resided,” McNeil said. “Search and rescue always make sure that the home residence is checked thoroughly, because many times we find the missing person hiding or sleeping. This happens a lot with children.”

“We asked his personal physician to come to our command post so we could get specifics on his behavior,” McNeil said. “When his doctor arrived, we asked her what she thought he may do if he was lost. It was thought that he may look for a place to sit down at some point and we thought that place would be an open car, which is where he was ultimately found.”

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“[BCSO] Officer Chris Vaz was a huge help in the search and rescue effort,” Darling wrote. “As the program manager of the BCSO’s Project Lifesaver program, he has extensive knowledge of the challenges and behaviors demonstrated by people with autism. He was able to share those with rescue teams.”

Project Lifesaver is a program through the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office that offers a GPS tracking bracelet to be placed on individuals with special needs, to help locate them if wander. Project Lifesaver reports a recovery time average of less than 30 minutes.

Finding Kenneth ‘Kenny’ Parks

Upon resuming the search early the next morning a woman alerted search teams that she might have found Parks. She said she found a man sitting in the back seat of her car in the driveway.

It was Parks.

At first officers got no response from Parks when they addressed him as Mr. Parks and then as Kenneth. However, as Darling recounted, K9 Capt. Paul Douglas address him as Kenny.

“When he heard ‘Kenny’ he turned and looked me right in the eye. I knew he was OK and it was the best feeling in the world,” Douglas said.

“It was a huge relief for all of us involved when he was located,” McNeil said.

“You simply can’t service your community unless you can serve its most vulnerable members,” Hodgson said. “The first lesson for each and every K9 team at the BCSO is tracking and locating missing persons, and they stand by ready to assist in any public safety situation that may arise.”

“It seemed like everyone in Fairhaven was out with flashlights, coffee, snacks, anything to help out,” Darling wrote. He quotes Lt. Kenny Almeida who searched with his K9, Will, “It’s hard to put into words just how great the neighbors and the community were. They were flooding us with tips and offers to help. They were donating coffee and food and water. It was truly amazing, and it was non-stop. It felt like all the reasons why I chose a career in law enforcement, that feeling of being a part of a community and keeping it safe.”

“There was an overwhelming feeling of relief,” Souza said. “In our profession we have to unfortunately prepare mentally for the worst, but hope for the best. At the command post when the announcement was made that he was found, searchers were high-fiving and thanking each other for their assistance. This situation ended as we wish all did, a happy ending.”

April is Autism Acceptance Month

April has widely been known as “Autism Awareness Month” however, the autism community is calling on all media outlets to shift their language to match the growing need for acceptance within the community in preparation for any news coverage in the weeks ahead, according to the Autism Society of America.

The shift in the use of terminology aims to foster acceptance to ignite change through improved support and opportunities in education, employment, accessible housing, affordable health care and comprehensive long-term services, the organization states on its website.

“While we will always work to spread awareness, words matter as we strive for autistic individuals to live fully in all areas of life,” writes Christopher Banks, President and CEO of the Autism Society of America. “As many individuals and families affected by autism know, acceptance is often one of the biggest barriers to finding and developing a strong support system.”

As seen in the Standard-Times

BY Linda Roy

Photo By: Peter Pereira