THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Hub police launching program to help find those who wander off

By Travis Andersen
Globe Staff / July 30, 2011

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Boston police unveiled a program yesterday to help responders find those with special needs who tend to wander off.

The program, dubbed North Star Personal Alert and developed by an officer whose son is autistic, allows parents and guardians to provide police with photos of their loved ones and information that will help authorities find them if they go missing.

North Star is geared toward children with autism and adults with Alzheimer’s disease, police said, though it is not limited to those groups.

Officer Michelle Maffeo, 38, said in a phone interview that she began working on the program after her now 6-year-old son, Matty, was diagnosed as autistic and she read about the challenges of the condition on the Internet.

Maffeo said autism has proven to be a “difficult diagnosis,’’ despite the constant support Matty receives from her and her husband, Michael, as well as their twin 8-year-old sons, Zachary and Luke.

“All the common issues and the wandering, it just got me concerned,’’ she said. “I saw how so much of it related to my job.’’

Elaine Driscoll, Boston police spokeswoman, said the program should be a boon to officers, who respond to several missing person calls each week involving people with special needs.

“Families really struggle with this, and it’s really scary when someone that you love and has challenges goes missing,’’ she said.

Police said registration drives for the program will soon be scheduled throughout the city.

A sample registration form posted on the department’s website asks caretakers to list calming measures that may put a lost child at ease, such as a favorite toy.

The form also asks caretakers to list the primary language spoken at home, dietary needs and allergies of the registered people, the places they frequent, and whether they communicate with sign language or by writing, among other questions.

Maffeo said several mental health advocates helped her shape the program, and she is excited to see it come to fruition.

“It’s absolutely wonderful,’’ said Maffeo. “I hope we can help a lot of people with this.’’

City residents who wish to enroll in the program can call 617-343-6503 or send an e-mail to northstar.bpd@cityofboston.gov.

Travis Andersen can be reached at tandersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.