FAIRHAVEN, Mass. – The call comes to the police department for a missing person. Sometimes it’s about an adult who didn’t show up for work. It could be a teenager who ran away from home. It could be a child who got separated from their parents during an outing.
The police train for such cases of missing persons. But what if the missing person has special needs and may not be able to communicate with authorities?
This is exactly what happened when Kenneth Parks of New Bedford left his group on March 17 while visiting Cushman Park in Fairhaven.
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Park, 73, diagnosed with autism is non-verbal and only grunts, according to his carers, especially when he becomes anxious.
After going missing for almost 22 hours, Parks was found in a car. He was uninjured but was taken to the hospital in an ambulance for an examination.
Skills needed when faced with such a response by the police
“All officers received classroom training in dealing with people with special needs,” said Fairhaven Sgt. Timothy F. Souza. He said the training takes place in the department’s annual academies or, for the newer officials, in their initial full-time police academy. “Aside from the police academy training, we have a few officers in our department who are assigned to the SEMLEC Search and Rescue and Mobile Command Units. These officers are specially trained to provide these types of responses. “
SEMLEC (Southeastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council) is a mutual aid consortium made up of resources from law enforcement agencies in 30 cities. It responds to a police chief’s request to assist with search and rescue, special events or serious crimes.
SEMLEC was used in the search for parks with the Fairhaven Police Department, Acushnet and Mattapoisett, the Fairhaven Fire Department, the Fairhaven Harbor Master, the New Bedford Police Naval Unit, the K-9 unit of the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office, the SEMLEC Search & Rescue and the SEMLEC Mobile Command Activated Center, SEMLEC Dive Team, SEMLEC Bicycle Unit, Mass State Police Special Emergency Team, Mass State Police Air Wing, Mass Environmental Police and the Department of Conservation & Recreation.
Find Kenneth Parks
Parks, who lives in a dorm, was on a trip to Cushman Park in Fairhaven when he stepped away from the group. At around 2 p.m. he was reported missing to the police.
“An initial call was made to dispatch and the officers answered,” Souza said. “The shift supervisor and his team immediately flooded the area.”
He said officials spoke to the last known person who saw parks and then went to the general area to stop people and ask if they had seen parks.
Other police and fire equipment were then brought in to expand the search scope, he said.
“In this case, SEMLEC Search and Rescue and the Sheriff’s K-9 units of Fairhaven Fire and Bristol Counties were called first,” noted Souza. “Within a short period of time, we also had other assets like the Air Wing division of the Mass State Police to support us. About 12 to 15 different agencies were involved during the two-day search. “
“SEMLEC became part of the search for Mr. Parks when the unit received a phone call from the Fairhaven police,” said George McNeil, Somerset police chief, chief control officer for SEMLEC Search and Rescue. “The call to search and rescue is usually requested by the participating community when it has used up its resources. However, this can change, especially if the weather conditions are poor or cold. Mission times may also vary based on the missing person’s age, health status, or other factors that may require a faster response. “
McNeil said a command post has been set up in a command vehicle that resembles a large mobile home and can communicate with all agencies, including the state police and their air wing. A large flat screen television is used to display grids of areas to be searched, starting with where the person was last seen. The grids will expand as the search expands, he said.
Sheriff Thomas Hodgson rolled out his department’s K9 unit almost immediately during the search. K9 Captain Paul Douglas received the first call for help from the Fairhaven Police Department and learned that a senior with autism was missing and K9 assistance was requested from the BCSO, BCSO information officer Jonathan Darling wrote on the department’s social media page.
The entire K9 unit responded.
When the search involves someone with special needs
“If we can, we can get information from a family member or caretaker about how exactly that person should be approached,” Souza said. “Every person is different. Autistic people are generally not volatile, but we need to be careful with them so as not to scare them and do our best to calm them down with us. “
“In the case of Mr. Parks, we had conversations with his caretaker and the people of the place where he lived,” said McNeil. “Search and Rescue always make sure that the residence is checked thoroughly as we often find that the missing person is hiding or sleeping. This often happens with children. “
“We asked his personal doctor to come to our command post so we could find out details of his behavior,” said McNeil. “When his doctor arrived, we asked her what she could do if he was lost. It was believed that at some point he might look for a place to sit and we thought this place would be an open car that he was ultimately found in. “
“(BCSO) Officer Chris Vaz was of great help in the search and rescue,” wrote Darling. “As the program manager of the BCSO’s Project Lifesaver program, he has extensive knowledge of the challenges and behaviors of people with autism. He was able to share these with rescue teams. “
Project Lifesaver is a program run by the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office that offers a GPS tracking bracelet for people with special needs to locate them while hiking. Project Lifesaver reports an average recovery time of less than 30 minutes.
Find Kenneth ‘Kenny’ Parks
When the search resumed early the next morning, a woman alerted search teams that she may have found Parks. She said she found a man in the back seat of her car in the driveway.
They were parks.
At first, when they addressed him as Mr. Parks and then as Kenneth, the officers received no response from Parks. As Darling said, however, K9 captain Paul Douglas addressed him as Kenny.
“When he heard ‘Kenny’ he turned and looked me straight in the eye. I knew he was fine and it was the best feeling in the world, ”said Douglas.
“It was a huge relief to all of us when he was found,” said McNeil.
“You can only serve your ward if you can serve the most vulnerable members,” said Hodgson. “The first lesson for any K9 team at BCSO is tracking down and finding missing people. They are on hand to assist with any public safety situation that may arise.”
“It seemed like everyone in Fairhaven was out with flashlights, coffee, snacks, and anything that could help,” wrote Darling. He quotes Lt. Kenny Almeida, who was looking for Will with his K9: “It’s hard to put into words how great the neighbors and the community were. They flooded us with tips and offers of help. They donated coffee, food, and water. It was really amazing and it was non-stop. It felt like all of the reasons I chose a career in law enforcement, the feeling of being part of a community and protecting it. “
“There was an overwhelming sense of relief,” said Souza. “In our job we unfortunately have to prepare ourselves mentally for the worst, but hope for the best. At the command post, when it was announced that he had been found, the seekers were haughty and thanked each other for their support. This situation ended the way we all wished, a happy ending. “
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