Program aims to outfit vulnerable people with tracking bracelets to help locate them if they wander off.
Mario Cortolezzis, with son Dante, 5, near where they found Dante knee-deep in the pond earlier this month. Dante, who has autism, had wandered from their Waconia back yard. Now Cortolezzis is promoting Project Lifesaver, which outfits vulnerable kids and adults with radiowave-emitting bracelets.
ZUMBRO FALLS, MINN. -- Grace Magruder's son had run away again.
"I think he followed the deer path," she said, pointing to a narrow line of dirt through a patch of heavy brush near the family's home here.
Four-year-old Zachary is mentally handicapped and prone to wandering. That time he was found a quarter-mile away.
"If I leave for two seconds, it's almost like he watches, and then he's gone," Magruder said.
But she could find peace of mind in a radiowave-emitting bracelet the Wabasha County family will soon receive from neighboring Olmsted County. Olmsted is one of about five Minnesota counties using the technology that could track people if they get lost.
The movement, driven largely by families of people with disabilities, gained new urgency with the recent disappearance of Keith Kennedy from a summer camp and his rescue after a week in the Wisconsin woods.
The bracelets in Olmsted County are part of the Project Lifesaver program, which the county operates with the RT Autism Awareness Foundation. The foundation hopes to spread the program, which includes vulnerable adults, to eight more counties by the end of the year, says Brad Trahan, a co-founder.
Trahan says he's in talks with a legislator to push for a law next year that would make the program available statewide.
About 40 children in Olmsted County now wear the bracelets. The foundation raised $15,000 for the program and provides the Sheriff's Office with the bracelets, receivers and receiver training, and screens the applicants. Trahan said a diagnosis by a doctor or school is necessary to receive a bracelet.
The initial cost of a bracelet is $405, though in Olmsted grants are typically available to those who need them.
Each bracelet contains a unique tracking signal that can be pinpointed from a mile away on the ground and up to 10 miles in the air.
Project Lifesaver says it has an average recovery time of less than 30 minutes. They claim a perfect record of recovering missing participants fitted with the bracelets -- about 1,700 so far nationwide.
Kennedy case had an impact
Her son's disappearance led Magruder to seek out Project Lifesaver. The Kennedy case hit her hard because of Kennedy's similarities to Zachary, even though Zachary has not been specifically diagnosed as autistic. "I know with Zachary, he doesn't respond to his name ... and how do you search for that?"
Mario Cortolezzis, who has an autistic son, had met with officials in Carver County to promote Project Lifesaver the day before Kennedy wandered off. He said his first reaction to the news was, "OK, this is a sign. This is exactly why Project Lifesaver is needed."
Cortolezzis is working to get his 5-year-old Dante a bracelet and is raising money to bring the program to Carver County. He estimates it will cost $20,000.
The program is attractive to law enforcement because it's potentially cost-effective, said Mike Bromberg, who ran the program for the Olmsted County Sheriff's Office. Considering the costs of personnel and equipment, just one or two traditional searches for missing children would justify the cost of implementing Project Lifesaver, he said.
Still, the upfront costs are prohibitive for some counties. Receivers cost about $2,500, and new programs require training people to use the technology.
Drawn to water
Other programs also help those who wander. Software called Search Tracker, which analyzes terrain and vegetation, helped direct rescuers in last week's search for Kennedy. Specially trained service dogs can keep track of autistic children, but they can cost up to $20,000.
Project Lifesaver has found support from parents of autistic children, many of whom fear their children's attraction to water.
When Kennedy was found last week, he was lying next to a creek. Last year, a 5-year-old Blaine girl with autism drowned in a pond after wandering from her home.
Cortolezzis says his son Dante recently broke out of a house that he jokes is locked down "like a fortress" to keep his son from wandering.
"He pushed the window up, broke the screen and he got out. Immediately he went to the pond," he said. A Carver County deputy found him standing knee-deep in the pond.
While there's no scientific explanation for the water connection, for some people with autism, a lack of fear "combined with the attraction to water proves fatal," said Dennis Debbaudt, who specializes in training law enforcement about autism.
Reactions to the bracelets vary. Some wearers try to get them off.
Bromberg said one girl slid the bracelet off her wrist by slathering it with shampoo. He has had to move bracelets from the wrist to the ankle to keep some kids from trying to gnaw them off.
Jade Werth of Rochester gave her 10-year-old son Austin a watch a few days before they received the bracelet. Her son is now used to the device.
"Some kids put stickers on 'em, some kids color 'em, some kids chew 'em," Bromberg said.
Ben Karp • 612-673-7455