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Silver Alert program experiencing growing pains

Posted January 5, 2009
Updated March 9, 2009

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— Silver Alerts were intended to help police find people with mental impairments, but many of the alerts are issued without a diagnosed mental problem for the person involved.

That led to a huge jump in the number of alerts issued last year.

Silver Alert Number of Silver Alerts rising

In 2007, 217 missing person cases were entered into the system, but only six Silver Alerts went out. From January through November of 2008, 508 cases were considered and 108 Silver Alerts issued.

“We can't control the number of people that go missing, but they qualify for the criteria,” said Nona Everette, with the North Carolina Center for Missing Persons.

The center is the agency that issues Silver Alerts. There is no age limit, but the missing person must meet the following criteria:

  • The person is believed to be suffering from dementia or other cognitive impairment- regardless of age.
  • The person is believed to be missing – regardless of circumstance.
  • A legal custodian of the missing person has submitted a missing person's report to the local law enforcement agency where the person went missing.
  • Law enforcement reports the incident to the N.C. Center for Missing Persons.

“The statute didn't designate exactly what 'cognitively impaired' is,” Everette said.

That left it up to area law enforcement to determine if a missing person fits into the Silver Alert category.

“That's the most difficult part, and we have to deal with the cognitive impairment on a case-by-case basis,” Everette said.

People like Dessie Cossou understand the need for frequent alerts.

“My mother has Alzheimer's, and she's been lost a couple of times and, thank God, that someone had the heart to return my mother,” Cossou said.

To avoid desensitizing the public, the N.C. Center for Missing Persons says it tries to localize the Silver Alert as much as possible. Officials also say they are evaluating the program with area law enforcement and looking for ways it can be improved.

Of the 108 Silver Alerts issued last year until November, 99 people were found safe and eight were found dead. One case is still listed as open; however, officials say they believe that person disappeared of his or her own will.

There is no definitive number on how many people were found as a result of the Silver Alert, but the N.C. Center for Missing Persons says all are consider successes.

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