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Klobuchar backs bill to help locate missing people with Alzheimer's, autism

West Fargo Police Sgt. Terry Styf (left) talks Friday, Feb. 23, 2018, with Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., about a GPS locator system that can help find people who go missing. (Ryan Johnson / Forum News Service)

MOORHEAD, Minn. — The 2013 search for Anthony Kuznia, 11, quickly escalated when authorities learned he had autism.

Chief Mike Hedlund said the East Grand Forks Police Department assisted the Polk County Sheriff's Department with a "very large search" to find the boy, who had a tendency of wandering off.

Despite their efforts, Kuznia's body was found the next day in the Red River.

That was the "impetus" for the department's decision in 2014 to work with Project Lifesaver, a nonprofit that helps provide radio transmitters that can be worn by at-risk people like Kuznia. If they go missing, authorities can use a locator system that points responders in their direction.

Jake Thompson, the project's coordinator with East Grand Forks Police, said an 83-year-old man reported wandering last fall was found in seven minutes using the technology.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., highlighted that success story Friday, Feb. 23, as she spoke about a bill that could help authorities find vulnerable people like this.

The Democrat and Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley introduced Kevin and Avonte's Law, which passed the Senate and could come up soon in the House.

If signed into law, it would reauthorize the recently expired Missing Alzheimer's Disease Patient Alert Program while also broadening it, offering up $2 million in new grants to support those with Alzheimer's and dementia as well as autism or other developmental disabilities.

It's a pressing matter, according to Klobuchar. During her Friday visit to the Moorhead Law Enforcement Center, she cited studies that found about half of kids with autism or on the spectrum and about 60 percent of those with Alzheimer's or another form of dementia will wander.

"We've had a number of cases where law enforcement, despite sending hundreds of people out, have not been able to find a senior or have not been able to find a kid," she said.

Moorhead Police Chief David Ebinger said a quick and effective response to reports of missing people like this is "invaluable."

Chelle LeMier, president of the Red River Valley Asperger-Autism Network, said her son, Bob, used to wander. No amount of locks could stop him, she said, recalling a time when she woke up and realized Bob was gone, only to find him playing outside in the snow in just a diaper and T-shirt.

"It could've ended so much differently for us," she said.

Nicole Watkins shared a similar story. The family consultant for Family Voices of North Dakota said her son has wandered off 25 times over the past 15 years.

That's why she said this new round of Justice Department grants that could be used for local training programs and more tools and resources for searchers is so important.

GPS trackers are a good option, she said, but not everyone can afford them.

Thompson said it takes about $350 to get a client set up for their first year of Project Lifesaver and about $40 a year after that.

Klobuchar said it's a small amount of money compared to large searches. Still, some families can't afford it, she said, and her bill would help more people get the tools they need.

"It's fairly simple, but it's certainly not simple for a family when their child with disabilities or their mom goes missing," she said.

Ryan Johnson

Ryan Johnson is the Features Editor for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He previously wrote for The Forum and the Grand Forks Herald.

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