Cyndie Parks has a friend who is 21, but cognitively 3 or 4 years old. He has an epilepsy disorder and has to be monitored 24/7.
When he occasionally “elopes,” despite due diligence, it can be a scary, life-shattering experience for the caretaker.
“You feel like your heart is about to explode from the fear, because of course you’re worried about their safety,” Parks said.
That’s why Parks, the community programs coordinator for the Renton Police Department, pushed the Take Me Home program out this May. Parks said she saw the program in Pensacola, Florida in 2006, but only recently had the man power to create it here.
Take Me Home is a free registration program for individuals with difficulty communicating, or who require special needs assistance during an emergency situation. Renton officers have immediate access to this database to help identify and assist in returning the person home.
Parks said this program typically addresses people with autism, Down syndrome, developmental cognitive disabilities and age-related diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s. The individual does not have to be a Renton citizen to apply.
“I didn’t want to restrict it,” Parks said. “People aren’t just confined to a home without travel.”
She also noted many south King County residents travel to Renton for Valley Medical Center.
Renton and Des Moines are currently the only police departments in Washington that have this program, Parks said. Fifteen people have registered for the Renton database so far.
Parks said she thinks a lot of people wouldn’t correlate a police department with having this program, so getting people familiar with the idea will be the longest road to travel.
She said while she expected to find a plethora of nearby services, she actually found few measures to keep folks safe in the event they elope from caretakers.
The program has been very well-received, she said.
Take Me Home creates another tool to keep members of a vulnerable community safe, said Natalie Eslinger, Bonney Lake resident and founder of the nonprofit The Friends Project.
Eslinger has taken her two children with rare genetic conditions to therapy at Valley Medical Center for nine years.
While in a Valley Medical Center waiting room, Eslinger thought about how this community is not only high risk, but often not understood by outside community members who aren’t familiar with people with a cognitive disorder or disease. Eslinger said even as a caretaker, you are sort of going through the tall grass with a machete trying to learn about your world.
So Eslinger came up with The Friends Project in May, named after her daughter who considers everyone her best friend. She decided it would be great for this community, who tends to be very visual, to have a platform to get to know and see first responders in a safe environment.
“What if there’s a fire and the lights and sirens are very overwhelming? How can we help first responders, respond in a way where it’s less traumatic? And how can we help the family be more accustomed to them?” Eslinger said.
Parks also mentioned the Take Me Home database can include information about people registered who are afraid of, or hostile toward, officers in uniform, so that the responding officer can have somebody civilian-clothed make first contact with the individual.
Beginning in August, the first and third Fridays of each month will involve The Friends Program meet-ups with fire department or police department members, with the assistance of Clover, a therapy dog, the departments’ vehicles, information on the Take Me Home program and movement stations with a physical therapist. Each meeting will have a different safety focus.
“I’m also hoping to have information for parents who were like me, who, just, don’t know,” Eslinger said.
Eslinger wants to push this as a continuous program, not a one-time event. She said even if they don’t remember the firefighters or police officers by name, she hopes they remember the visual and the friendship.
Parks said Take Me Home also takes the confusion out of officers determining whether they’re dealing with someone that needs assistance or is intentionally uncooperative.
“I think sometimes, with some of these cognitive disabilities, they can have a lot of red flags for officer safety,” She said “If we had somebody prone to keeping his hands in his pockets, he wouldn’t communicate or look into their eyes or listen to commands, and we got a suspicious persons report, we wouldn’t want that caretaker to be worried that this person’s mannerisms are confused with being hostile and uncooperative. So then with the database we could see he’s symptomatic of being nonverbal.”
Before this program, sometimes officers couldn’t find contact information for a person’s caretakers until a missing persons report was filed, Parks said. She also mentioned often those with dementia and Alzheimer’s are still drivers, and someone with a cognitive disability might have places they frequent alone, but when stressed their ability to communicate becomes hampered.
Parks also offers bracelets and carabiners for people registered that would help first responders outside of Renton know their information was in the database. Her hope is that other agencies in the region will take this program and use it for their departments.
Parks said more information, and registration forms, can be found at www.rentonwa.gov/tmh.
Eslinger is looking for volunteers for The Friends Project events, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and is on Facebook at “The Friends Project of WA.”