A Silver Alert is a public notification system in the United States to broadcast information about missing persons – especially senior citizens with Alzheimer's disease, dementia or other mental disabilities – in order to aid in their return.
Silver Alerts use a wide array of media outlets – such as commercial radio stations, television stations, and cable television – to broadcast information about missing persons. Silver Alerts also use variable-message signs on roadways to alert motorists to be on the lookout for missing seniors. In cases in which a missing person is believed to have gone missing on foot, Silver Alerts have used Reverse 911 or other emergency notification systems to notify nearby residents of the neighborhood surrounding the missing person's last known location.
Supporters of Silver Alert point to U.S.'s growing elderly population as a reason to support new programs to locate missing seniors. Approximately six in ten dementia victims will wander at least once, health-care statistics show, and the numbers are growing worldwide, fueled primarily by Alzheimer's disease. If not found within 24 hours, up to half of wandering seniors with dementia suffer serious injury or death.
Activation criteria for Silver Alerts vary from state to state. Some states limit Silver Alerts to persons over the age of 65, who have been medically diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, dementia or a mental disability. Other states expand Silver Alert to include all children and adults with mental or developmental disabilities. In general, the decision to issue a Silver Alert is made by the law enforcement agency investigating the report of a missing person. Public information in a Silver Alert usually consists of the name and description of the missing person and a description of the missing person's vehicle and license plate number.
In December 2005, Oklahoma state Representative Fred Perry (R-Tulsa) announced his intention to introduce an "AMBER Alert for seniors", which he dubbed "Silver Alert." In March 2006, the Oklahoma House of Representatives passed H.R. 1075, a resolution calling for a Silver Alert system to find missing seniors. In response to this non-binding resolution, the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety added Silver Alert notifications to the statewide alerts sent to law enforcement agencies and the media for rapid distribution. In April 2009, Governor Brad Henry signed legislation permanently establishing the Silver Alert program.
In Georgia, public efforts to locate missing seniors increased following the April 2004 disappearance of Mattie Moore, a 68-year-old Atlanta resident suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Eight months after Moore's disappearance, her body was found 500 yards from her home. The City of Atlanta created "Mattie's Call" to coordinate and support Metro Atlanta law enforcement, emergency management and broadcasters to issue an urgent bulletin in missing persons cases involving persons with Alzheimer's disease, dementia and other mental disabilities. Legislation to create a statewide Mattie's Call program was enacted in April 2006.
In Florida, Mary Zelter, an 86-year-old resident of Largo, drove away from her assisted-living facility on February 26, 2008, and never returned. Her body was found a week later 10 miles (16 km) away in the Intracoastal Waterway near a Clearwater boat ramp. Her submerged car was nearby. This tragedy prompted Pinellas County officials to create a Silver Alert pilot program that later grew into a statewide initiative.
Twenty-six states have missing persons recovery programs that are formally called "Silver Alert":
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- North Carolina
- Rhode Island
- South Carolina
- West Virginia
Additionally, nine states have programs to help locate missing seniors that are not officially called "Silver Alert" but contain criteria similar to existing Silver Alert programs:
- Alabama – Missing Senior Alert
- Colorado, Missing Senior Citizen Alert
- Georgia – Mattie's Call
- Kentucky – Golden Alert
- Michigan – Mozelle Senior or Vulnerable Adult Medical Alert Act
- New Hampshire – Missing Senior Citizen Alert
- New York – Golden Alert
- Ohio – Missing Adult Alert
- Virginia – Senior Alert
Plus, eight states have missing-persons alert systems with broader criteria than conventional Silver Alert programs. These missing-person alerts apply to larger categories of endangered persons, or apply to all missing people, regardless of age or impairment:
- Delaware, Gold Alert
- Minnesota – Brandon's Law
- Missouri – Endangered Person Advisory
- Montana – Missing and Endangered Persons Advisory
- Pennsylvania – Missing and Endangered Person Advisory
- South Dakota – Endangered Persons Advisory
- Utah – Endangered Person Advisory
- Wyoming – Endangered Person Advisory
In May 2008, Representative Lloyd Doggett introduced the National Silver Alert Act in the U.S. House of Representatives, a bill to encourage, enhance, and integrate Silver Alert plans throughout the United States. Similar legislation was filed by Representatives Gus Bilirakis (R-FL) and Sue Myrick (R-NC). The three bills were combined into a single bill, H.R. 6064. The bill was passed by the House in September 2008 by a voice vote, but the 110th Congress adjourned before it could be considered in the U.S. Senate.
The National Silver Alert Act was re-introduced in the 111th Congress as H.R. 632. It was passed by the House of Representatives on February 11, 2009 on a voice vote. Companion legislation (S.557) was introduced in the Senate by Senator Mel Martinez (R-FL) and Senator Herb Kohl (D-WI).
The National Silver Alert Act has been endorsed by the Assisted Living Federation of America (ALFA), Alzheimer's Association, Alzheimer's Foundation of America, Elder Justice Coalition, National Silver Haired Congress, the National Association of Police Organizations and the National Sheriffs' Association.
Critics of Silver Alert have raised concerns that the proliferation of color-coded alerts will reduce their importance, risking that alerts would be ignored as a "wolf cry". For example, Texas has created an Amber Alert, Silver Alert and Blue Alert (issued to locate an assailant in the event a law enforcement officer is killed or injured.) In New York, Governor George Pataki vetoed Silver Alert legislation in 2003, citing his concern that it would weaken the Amber Alert system and make the alerts too common. In the absence of state-level legislation, local Silver Alert programs have been enacted by New York City and five New York counties: Rockland, Suffolk, Nassau, Niagara and Erie.
Some critics have raised concerns about the cost of implementing the Silver Alert program on a nationwide basis. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that implementation of the National Silver Alert Act would cost $59 million over a five-year period. During the House debate on the cost Representative Ted Poe (R-TX) noted that states with Silver Alerts have reported nominal costs associated with operating the system, since they are able to utilize existing Amber Alert infrastructure to issue Silver Alerts.
Because the implementation of Silver Alert systems vary from state to state, there are no national statistics for the retrieval rates resulting from Silver Alerts. However, among states that publicly release statistics, retrieval rates indicate a high level of success. For example, In North Carolina, 128 Silver Alerts were issued in 2008. Of these, 118 seniors were safely recovered.
In Georgia, Mattie's Call garnered a safe return for 70 of the 71 calls issued between its inception in 2006 and January 2009.
In Texas, the Silver Alert system was invoked 52 times in the first year following its inception in September 2007. Of these alerts, 48 of the missing seniors were located safely, and 13 of these recoveries were directly attributable to Silver Alert.
In Florida, 136 Silver Alerts were issued in its first year (2008–2009), leading to 131 safe recoveries. 19 of these recoveries were directly attributable to Silver Alert. Over two years, 227 Silver Alerts have been issued in Florida – with 220 seniors located safely, and 36 of those recoveries attributed directly to the Silver Alert. Over three years, 377 Silver Alerts have been issued in Florida, with 367 seniors located safely, and 51 of those recoveries attributed directly to the Silver Alert.
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