Mary Black, an 86-year-old woman with dementia, drove away from her St. David home with no money, water or food more than once.
On one occasion, a motorist called 911 to report Black’s vehicle swerving on Interstate 10. Another time, a hunter found her car abandoned near Arizona City.
Two weeks after she again disappeared in November, Black was found dead from exposure a mile from her car. Cochise County Sheriff Mark J. Dannels said a system similar to the Amber Alert Program for abducted children may have saved her life.
“We couldn’t get the process going on beyond law-enforcement channels in the search, and that’s not right,” Dannels said. “The system literally wouldn’t connect.”
Working with Sen. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford, Dannels is seeking a law establishing a “Silver Alert” system that would help find missing Arizona residents ages 65 and older.
SB 1097 received unanimous approval from the state Senate on Feb. 3, and is awaiting action by the House.
Griffin said Black’s death called attention to the need for emergency alerts to help seniors in danger.
“Nobody bothered at the local police to call the sheriff’s office because these regulations weren’t in place,” she said.
Under Arizona’s Amber Alert plan, law-enforcement agencies and broadcasters partner to inform the public when a child is abducted. The notifications interrupt programming using the Emergency Alert System. In 2008, the Arizona Attorney General’s Office rolled out an initiative to issue alerts for missing adults with mental or physical disabilities.
Griffin’s bill would require the Arizona Department of Public Safety to establish a Silver Alert notification system to quickly share information on missing seniors.
For an alert to be issued, law enforcement would have to conclude that the senior disappeared under suspicious circumstances, is in danger, and that all local resources had been used.
Dannels said the bill would mimic a system that already works effectively.
“People think law enforcement always communicates well,” he said. “That’s not always the case. The Amber Alert gets law enforcement all over the state to come together and get on the same page.”
The Amber Alert Program recovers 90 percent of missing children within 72 hours, according to the most recent U.S. Department of Justice report.
Steve Jennings, associate state director of advocacy for AARP Arizona, said his organization supports the concept of Silver Alerts, especially for those diagnosed with mental illness or who have been deemed by courts to be incapable of managing their own affairs. However, he said states should tread carefully to guard against exploitation of seniors.
“Age itself can become a vulnerability,” Jennings said. “For instance, you have a rich uncle and you’re the heir. Might not triggering a Silver Alert make people think they’re incompetent? A missing person is a missing person, but it doesn’t have to be an incompetent person.”
At least 21 states have alert systems specifically for missing seniors, according to the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America. Dannels said Arizona has a compelling reason to follow suit.
“Just think — these people that go missing are someone’s loved one ... someone’s mother, brother, father, sister,” he said. “Why can’t we just put all eyes on them and work to solve the problem?”