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Get the latest coverage of the 2024 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

Lawmakers look to focus Purple Alerts for missing adults with mental disabilities

The exterior of the headquarters of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. A white sign reads in capital blue text, "FDLE Main Entrance Visitor Parking, 2331 Phillips Road."
Augustus Hoff
/
Fresh Take Florida
The headquarters of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement is located at 2331 Phillips Rd. In Tallahassee, Fla., as seen on Feb. 17, 2024.

Florida lawmakers in Tallahassee are considering major changes to the state's Purple Alerts used to help find missing adults who suffer from an intellectual or developmental disability.

Florida lawmakers in Tallahassee are considering major changes to the state's Purple Alerts used to help find missing adults who suffer from an intellectual or developmental disability.

The bills, sponsored by Democrats, would limit the number of statewide alerts in favor of local, countywide notifications where someone may have vanished.

The House bill was being considered Tuesday and could face a floor vote as early as later this week. The Senate bill also was far along in the legislative process. Lawmakers have unanimously approved both so far during committee hearings.

Under the bills, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement would issue a statewide Purple Alert only when there is evidence a person with a mental or cognitive disability is missing and likely in an identifiable vehicle – since such cases almost always involve people with those conditions who wander away on foot.

“If somebody’s missing from Pinellas County, my heart goes out to the individual, but I’m not on the lookout for somebody from Pinellas County,” said Rep. Joe Casello, D-Boynton Beach, whose district is roughly 250 miles away and who sponsored the House bill.

In cases where there is no vehicle involved – indicating someone may be on foot – a more-localized alert would notify law enforcement and the community. Casello said statewide Purple Alerts aren’t helpful when they’re not needed.

The Legislature said the Florida Department of Law Enforcement supports the change, which would cost no additional public money.

The exterior of the headquarters of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. A sign reads "Robert R. Dempsey Building." Below it is a brick sign that reads in white, all capital letters, "Florida Department of Law Enforcement." Trees and a pole with the American flag on it are in front of a cream-colored building.
Augustus Hoff
/
Fresh Take Florida
The headquarters of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement is located at 2331 Phillips Rd. In Tallahassee, Fla., as seen on Feb. 17, 2024. (Augustus Hoff/Fresh Take Florida)

The bills would not change Florida’s system for Amber Alerts, designed to help find abducted children, or Silver Alerts, designed to help elderly people suffering from an irreversible deterioration of intellectual faculties, such as Alzheimer’s patients.

In the cases of Purple Alerts, it’s highly unlikely a missing person might be behind the wheel, said Sen. Lori Berman, D-Boynton Beach, who sponsored the Senate bill.

“These people don’t drive and don’t have access to vehicles,” she said. “This will set up a procedure for when they wander…so the local media and the local area cares about the missing person.”

Berman said she has seen a growing number of state residents with autism or developmental disabilities.

In 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found the rate of Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnoses in U.S. children was 1 in 36, higher than reported data during 2000 to 2018. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, nearly half of children with the disorder attempt to go missing, possibly putting themselves at risk.

The CDC reported Florida as the No. 4 state with the greatest number of adults diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

“This is a real public safety effort to make sure we protect people,” Berman said.

Casello and Berman introduced the Purple Alert legislation in 2019 after the son of Beverly Marshall of Sebring in central Florida died in August. 2018. Joshua Marshall, 30, who was autistic and nonverbal, wandered from his father’s home in Port St. Lucie to a nearby convenience store. Joshua’s body was later found in a pond outside a nearby fire department.

Beverly Marshall worked closely with the lawmakers on the law to create an alert system for missing adults ineligible under the Florida Silver Alerts, which applies only to individuals 60 years or older.

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the Purple Alert into law in July 2021, and it went into effect the following summer. The law required local law enforcement agencies to report missing adults under 60 with mental or cognitive disabilities to the state law enforcement agency for statewide alerts.

Since then, Florida has issued about 350 Purple Alerts, spokeswoman Dana Kelly said. Eight Purple Alerts remain active.

“It’s one of those issues that make a whole lot of common sense,” said Barney Bishop, the founder of the Tallahassee-based Florida Smart Justice Alliance, a political group that advocates for criminal justice reforms. “It’s the right thing to do.”

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This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at jaredteitel@ufl.edu. You can donate to support our students here.

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