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Pa. lawmakers propose ‘purple alerts’ to help find missing people who have intellectual disabilities

The dome of the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg.
Commonwealth Media Services

In January, a 17-year-old with special needs was dropped off at school, but unbeknownst to her and the bus driver, class was canceled for the day.

Without the ability to enter the building, the student went missing for around 30 hours in the Pittsburgh area.

The bus company admitted fault, but this situation led some lawmakers to introduce legislation creating a “purple alert” system.

This would function much like an AMBER alert, but it would apply to those with intellectual disabilities. Additionally, AMBER alerts are sent out when the missing person is 17 or younger, while the purple alert would be for all ages.

There are two bills that will be introduced, one in each chamber. Reps. Jessica Benham and Brandon J. Markosek, both D-Allegheny, are sponsoring the House version.

Benham said the alert system is part of what makes a community.

“I think about this alert system as an extension of a neighborhood where everybody’s looking out for each other,” she said. “When we’ve got vulnerable folks in our society, it’s up to us to step up and care for each other.”

Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Allegheny, is sponsoring the Senate companion bill. He said the alert system could be life-saving.

“Time is of the essence when someone with an intellectual disability is lost since the death rate of a person missing more than 72 hours is as high as 88 percent,” he said. “By establishing a Purple Alert in Pennsylvania, we can put the public on notice quickly and hopefully succeed in bringing the individual back home safely.”

Other states have introduced purple alerts.

In its first year in Florida,250 people were found out of 255 alerts.

While there are no Republican cosponsors at the moment, Benham said she has had conversations with her GOP colleagues about the bill and has received support from constituents over it.

“I think folks should know that there’s community support for it,” Benham said.” …I’m getting just loads of emails from folks, you know, not even just my constituents, but other folks who saw it saying, oh, we need this. I absolutely, absolutely support this including family members of the young woman who was lost.”