In an effort to help authorities and family members search for missing people with autism or Alzheimer's, Florida lawmakers are introducing a bill that would provide locators for free.
Senate Bill 1156 and House Bill 591 aim to expand "Project Leo." In 2016, Project Leo was enacted to provide personal devices to aid the search-and-rescue efforts for people with special needs, especially those with a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder and Alzheimer's.
Named in memory of 9-year-old Leo Walker whose body was found in a Lake City pond in 2014, the project was initially only available in five counties: Alachua, Baker, Columbia, Suwanee and Hamilton.
Via state grants, those who qualify for the devices were able to obtain them from autism centers and local sheriff offices at no charge.
If passed, Project Leo would expand statewide to all Centers for Autism and Related Disabilities in the State University System, according to the bill.
Asa and Priscilla Maass of Jacksonville said the program has the potential to save lives. They are currently reviewing a GPS 'tracking' product Angel Sense for their 10-year-old autistic daughter Abigail. They remember vividly the day Abigail briefly wandered away and was discovered in the neighborhood retention pond.
"It was terrifying. I had just taught her how to swim two weeks prior, so thankfully she did know how to swim," Priscilla said. "She's non-verbal so if she were to go missing she couldn't tell anybody any information about herself."
Asa said even with locks and safeguards, there's still a great need for having a technological way to ensure his daughter is safe.
"It seems like every week there's another adult or child with autism that has wandered off, and you pray that they find them but the statistics aren't good for them," Asa said. "The biggest issue for a lot of parents [wanting a tracking device] is the price because it is an expensive thing to operate."
The House version of the bill passed a subcommittee Tuesday and is currently in the hands of the Judiciary Committee. The Senate version also remains in committee. If enacted, the law would go into effect July 1, 2018.