Kids learn at an early age to let police officers know when they are lost and that the officer will help return them home safely.
When children cannot speak, the prospect of getting them back to their parent or caregiver becomes much more complex.
The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office launched countywide its new Project Childsafe on June 28. The initiative is for individuals ages 5 through 25 who have a communication deficit.
These children have a "lower tolerance for stress. If they wander and get lost, they operate in a fight or flight mode ... the program helps with the safety of these kids," Detective Brettina Adams said.
The program, piloted within the law enforcement community, focused initially on non-verbal people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Then quickly expanded to include physical, mental, emotional or development disabilities that prevent effective communication.
In 2011, the Pinellas County Schools reported 700 enrolled non-verbal students. The Center for Disease Controlled reported 1 in 88 children are diagnosed with ASD and 50 percent of the children are non-verbal.
There are two ways the new safety initiative works. The program allows law enforcement to enter the physical description of a child and the geographic location where they are found. Then using photos in the database the officer can get the child home. Also, if a caregiver reports the child is missing an alert with the individual's image goes out to law enforcement.
Parents can enroll their children in the voluntary program online of by calling Adams at 727-582-6173 or email@example.com. The photographs of the children are maintained in an internal sheriff's office database. The program will be open to all police departments in Pinellas County, if they would like to participate.