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St. Charles County police system can track wanderers with autism or Alzheimer's

St. Charles County police system can track wanderers with autism or Alzheimer's

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Care Trak For more information about the St. Charles County police Care Trak system, call 636-949-7319.

ST. CHARLES COUNTY • Ryan Delaney loves his secret spy watch.

He says it looks just like the one “Inspector Gadget” uses on TV, but Delaney thinks his is better.

The 18-year-old believes he can use it to call his “Chief,” if he ever needs to.

The magical power he assigns to the device reflects how Delaney, who has autism, makes sense of the radio transmitter he wears on his wrist. Should he ever stray too far from home, St. Charles County police will be able to find him at a distance of one mile on the ground, five miles from the air or 12 feet under water.

About 20 St. Charles County families of loved ones with conditions such as autism or Alzheimer’s have so far taken advantage of technology, known as Care Trak, which began as a way to track endangered animals.

Police Cpl. Steve Case, whose own son has autism, launched the program in conjunction with the St. Charles County Health Department.

He is Delaney’s “Chief.”

He met Delaney’s mother, Michelle Delaney, in an autism awareness group. At the time, Delaney’s parents were struggling with helping him adjust to high school in St. Peters without a service dog that he felt kept him from fitting in.

A genetic disorder known as Fragile X syndrome, coupled with autism, give Delaney a fight-or-flight response in uncomfortable or unfamiliar situations. His dog, a black Labrador named Monroe, was tethered to him by a leash and trained to drop to the floor and act as dead weight should Delaney try to run.

His parents feared what would happen if he ran without Monroe to hold him back.

With Care Trak, Delaney goes to the health department about every 90 days to have the device checked and its battery changed. St. Charles County officers are there to meet him.

Several of them also are his Chiefs.

“A lot of police officers don’t know how to work with people who have autism,” explained Linda Huhn, Delaney’s grandmother. “So this is a really good connection between the two of them, too.”

His parents check his “spy watch” against a box that lights up if the battery is working. They keep a log of the twice daily inspections.

The “spy watch” cost about $300, and a new battery costs $6. There are no monthly fees.

More than 500 agencies across the country use Care Trak, which is based in Murphysboro, Ill., the company said. St. Charles is believed to be the only one in the St. Louis-area.

The system costs about $5,000 for police departments, which includes training for up to 12 officers and the tracking device. Officers learn the basics about the diseases and conditions that most of the users have, such as how Alzheimer’s patients typically retain long-term memory and may return to former homes, said Mike Chylewski, vice president of Care Trak.

A home version of the system costs about $1,000, and allows clients to search for missing loved ones on their own.

The radio telemetry has proved more reliable and less expensive than GPS systems, Chylewski said. Radio waves are not as prone to disruption from storms or weak signals.

Police use hand-held devices with directional antennas to track the transmitters, which can attach to wrists or ankles. It’s been used thousands of times with 100 percent success, and typically helps locate people within 30 minutes of police arriving, Chylewski said.

Care Trak’s parent company, Wildlife Materials Inc., has been building devices to follow endangered species since 1970. The original owner, Robert Hawkins, was a wildlife biologist at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. One day he spoke with a fellow professor who was worried that his wife with Alzheimer’s might wander away.

“They put a falcon transmitter on her, and sure enough, a week later, she wandered off into the woods by their house, so his friend picked up the receiver and goes out and gets her,” Chylewski said.

Fast forward about 30 years, and family members of others with Alzheimer’s, like Priscilla Hunter, can’t imagine life without the device.

Hunter, 67, came home one night after church choir practice last summer to find a St. Charles County police car in her driveway. Her heart raced at the possibilities, because Clarence, her husband of 45 years, was about five years into an Alzheimer’s diagnosis.

The officer had found her husband, also 67, wandering in her O’Fallon subdivision in his pajamas. It is a confusing neighborhood of winding streets, cul-de-sacs and similar houses.

The experience terrified Priscilla Hunter, who remembered 18 years back when her husband’s father, who also had Alzheimer’s and lived in Ohio, left home outside Cincinnati to put gas in the car and ended up in Toledo, more than 200 miles away.

Clarence now goes everywhere with his wife, including choir practice, or is under the care of a relative, usually his son or daughter.

But as the man Priscilla Hunter once knew as an industrial engineer, a top car salesman and successful restaurant entrepreneur continues to fade, she said, Care Trak provides some sense of control.

“It’s like a security blanket for me,” she said. “Our life has to be as normal as possible. Would I stop living because of it? No. This has made me feel a little more secure so that if he does get away, he could probably be found.”

Chylewski said police across the country have used the equipment dozens of times with 100 percent success.

The two times that Delaney unexpectedly left his after-school program, he ran toward his home. Both times, neighbors who knew him called his parents.

His mother hopes there won’t be a next time.

But she knows that if there is, Delaney’s Chief will find him.

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