Alert System For Missing People With Disabilities Is Going Unused
Edison, N.J. — The last time anyone reported seeing Robert Nicholson alive was on Dec. 10, 2018. It was 39 degrees, with a low forecast of 19. He sat at a cafeteria table inside the REM Day Center in Vineland around 1:15 p.m., waiting to board a bus for a day trip.
It was only his second day there.
But by 1:40 p.m., when the bus pulled up, no one could find Nicholson; not in the building, not in the surrounding area.
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The lead worker told police that was his first day supervising Nicholson, and he knew little about the 28-year-old’s needs. But his group home manager said she had provided the necessary information: Nicholson had a “line of sight” classification, meaning he should not go unsupervised — ever.
Officers searched the area from Boulevard, South City Line to North, according to a missing persons report from the Vineland Police Department obtained by NJ Advance Media. They found no trace of Nicholson, who had serious intellectual disabilities.
On December 26, more than two weeks later, a landscaper found Nicholson about 3.5 miles away, frozen to death with just his baseball cap, hooded sweatshirt, jeans and backpack.
Nicholson was one of three men with disabilities in New Jersey who got lost late last year and later died in the cold. The other two, Juan Garcia and Joseph Brockington, were friends who lost their way while walking to a Wawa in Burlington County.
Between 14,000 and 16,000 people go missing for all kinds of reasons in the Garden State each year. Some are runaways, others are victims of crime or accidents, and more and more, casualties of the opioid crisis. But when it comes to adults with intellectual disabilities in full-time care facilities, balancing their autonomy with an immediate response becomes another obstacle for authorities.
In recent years, legislators unveiled a new tactic inspired by the Amber and Silver alerts. It’s called the MVP alert, but none of these tragic cases triggered it. In fact, it hasn’t been issued once since the law establishing it passed in 2016.
“There’s a fine line between independence and restraint that you don’t want to cross,” Mark Hopkins, chief with the Greater Philadelphia Search and Rescue, a volunteer organization that assists with missing persons investigations in southeast Pennsylvania and New Jersey. “Many times you have people that are mentally disabled in one way or another that are very high-functioning that lead normal day-to-day lives much like our own.”
So whose job is it to decide that?
To make sure Nicholson and the other two men, Garcia, 58, and Brockington, 56, have every right to pursue the limited independence they can manage, but won’t end up in a stressful situation that can quickly become dangerous?
And who’s responsible for finding them, if things do go wrong? Is it the State Police’s missing persons unit, the local authorities that know every neighborhood, every road and risky spot in town, or an expert search and rescue team armed with bloodhounds?
Cases like these — especially ones that go cold — can fall to the bottom of the list.
Here’s what happened when the 3 went missing:
The Monday afternoon Nicholson wandered off, police spoke to the day program and entered his information into the FBI’s National Crime Information Center database, a system accessible by criminal justice agencies nationwide, and sent out a BOLO.
On Tuesday, police contacted his group home manager. She said the community was worried about him and had formed a search party. Nicholson needed medication twice daily and had already missed two doses. Officers also notified the Cumberland County Prosecutor’s Office and called his Trac cell phone, but it went straight to voicemail. When they tried to ping its location with AT&T, they found the phone had last received a signal the day Nicholson went missing.
Another day went by, and an officer followed up Wednesday. He used another law enforcement system to send out a missing person flyer, which had a description of Nicholson and his photo, to surrounding police departments and hospitals.
By then, Nicholson had been missing for almost 48 hours.
An officer followed up on Thursday as the 72 hour mark ticked near. No one had seen Nicholson.
The reports obtained by NJ Advance Media drop off until Dec. 26, when Nicholson was found dead by a retention pond on a property near Vineland High School, having frozen to death. He wasn’t far from busy Chestnut Avenue, where hundreds of students come and go from school each morning and afternoon alongside residents of condo complexes.
Vineland’s chief of police did not respond to a request for comment about the search for Nicholson, and if officers had taken other action to find him aside from searches in those first three days. The day program from which Nicholson disappeared did not respond to a request for comment either.
Just weeks earlier, on Nov. 1, Garcia and Brockington, who also had intellectual disabilities, never returned from a walk in Eastampton.
In February, Brockington was found dead in the nearby Smithville Park. Officials ruled hypothermia as the cause. The same news came for Garcia in early April, when an active search recovered his body.
A worker from their group home had reported the two missing around 9:39 p.m., less than three hours after they left for a walk to a nearby Wawa.
Both men had lived at the Catholic Charities home for six years, and had permission to walk to Wawa and around the nearby park, records show. Usually, Brockington led and Garcia followed, the two taking the residential road, or maybe the foot path that runs alongside it to the park.
But a staffer found it odd when they had not yet returned, and notified police.
An officer entered the men as missing into NCIC, a national crime database. The officer checked the surrounding area, but did not find Brockington and Garcia. According to the police reports, there was no way to contact them.
Brockington wore a black sweatshirt and jeans, Garcia a black winter hat.
It was warmer that day, unseasonably warm with a high of 73 and lows in the high 40s. It stayed like that all week, with lows only dropping below 40 twice.
Still, both men were not found until months later, after they had separately frozen to death.
Eastampton police put a notice on their Facebook page with photos of the men on Nov. 4 at 4:30 p.m., nearly 72 hours after they disappeared.
Two of Brockington’s family members called to check in, one expressing frustration with how the home had handled his disappearance. She asked for information about starting a search party.
A bloodhound from the Mercer County Sheriff’s Department was dispatched to the scene, but it didn’t find anything. Emails were sent to the press with information to distribute.
Calls from witnesses started pouring in. They would continue through the month.
First, a woman said she saw the men at a pizzeria, then another said they were all the way in Ocean Grove, a seaside town in Monmouth Ccounty. Another woman said she saw the men at a hospital.
Police searched their rooms, and talked to family. None of the leads panned out.
Eventually, a hiker in search of deer antlers saw Brockington face down in an icy creek in the park. Two months later, a park ranger came across Garcia, who was also in a creek, tangled in brush.
Authorities suspected no foul play in any of the three deaths. A spokeswoman for Catholic Charities, the organization operating the group home where Garcia and Brockington lived, declined to comment for this story.
How can we fix this?
The problem extends beyond New Jersey, and lawmakers here have tried to make things right. In 2016, the state legislature passed an MVP alert law, which stands for “missing vulnerable persons.”
To qualify for the MVP alert, officials must have reason to believe the person has a mental, intellectual or developmental disability or defect. But they must also be operating or riding in an known vehicle, entered into NCIC, believed to be in danger of death or serious bodily injury and authorities must have sufficient information to believe the alert would assist in locating them. It does not apply to those who are suicidal, as authorities fear plastering the alert on a road sign could further distress those already experiencing trauma.
Sgt. Jeff Flynn, a New Jersey State Police spokesman, said the search for Garcia and Brockington did not trigger the alert because the men were walking. The State Police was not involved in the search for Nicholson.
Flynn also said the State Police’s missing persons unit has “indicated that investigative methods, like cell phone activity, credit cards and social media tend to be the most successful” in locating the missing. They employed those tactics and put troopers on the ground in the search for Garcia and Brockington.
The problem: Those living in group homes often do not have cell phones, credit cards or social media accounts to track. They were not three men on the run, leaving a paper trail as they charged tickets or made phone calls.
They were lost and confused.
Participation in the MVP program is voluntary, department by department, and that part is key. And, what does “vulnerable” mean, anyway?
State Sen. James Beach, D-Voorhees, who sponsored the legislation, declined an interview through a spokeswoman, but issued the following statement.
“These incidents are extremely troubling,” he said. “While we can work to improve the response when individuals wander away from their care facilities, we must also look at why these situations arise and what can be done proactively to prevent them and keep our state’s most vulnerable safe.”
NJ Advance Media’s inquiry to Beach also included the fact that no cases have triggered the alert. His statement did not address that fact.
To some experts, these alerts are helpful. To others, they’re “feel-good” laws that look like sweeping overhauls to the tragic issue, but really do little to chip away at the persistent problem.
“It went from being cool to, how can I turn this off? We have a lot of different alerts and a lot of systems, some of which work, some don’t,” said Hopkins, the chief of Greater Philadelphia Search and Rescue. “I think the only system that actually works is education, and education focused at the impacted demographic.”
That means training the officers and departments who often have never had a missing persons case before. They’re common in cities and with larger departments, but in small towns, the reports can often fall to the bottom of a busy cop’s priorities.
“I think there’s an overall problem in the world of missing persons, in that many many many times, we wait too long. Especially in the case of missing adults,” said Lisa Valentino, the New Jersey outreach coordinator with Community United Effort, a national nonprofit that assists in missing persons cases. “People are like, they have a right to walk away. But again, you’re talking about someone who’s left the facility, who’s vulnerable in a different way, and somehow they’re still getting lost in the cracks.”
Advocates say it’s delays in response are still hurting the vulnerable people who go missing.
“Once a facility discovers someone is missing and place the call and file a missing persons report, the first 24 hours are critical,” she said. “Someone who has dementia, Alzheimer’s, special needs, law enforcement, really, they should be out there immediately searching.”
But that doesn’t always happen.
New Jersey took a leap ahead in missing persons cases in 2008, when Patricia’s Law was passed. It mandates that police must take a report of a missing person immediately, rather than waiting 24 hours.
It’s nicknamed “Patricia’s Law,” after Patricia Viola, who went missing at 42 in 2001. In 2012, her remains were found in Queens.
Experts say family members can help move things along, but too often they must make their efforts a second job, calling the police and cultivating their own relationships, reminding them, “Hey, we’re still here. We’re still looking for our loved one. What have you done lately?'”
Nicholson had no family to advocate for him. His aunt, Lilian Lighty, had not heard from her nephew for years, and had assumed he was with his mother, who was also missing. Upon learning of his death, she was devastated. She found out months later after reading NJ Advance Media’s report.
“He was the sweetest kid ever. He used to call me, asking how I was doing,” she said. “He loved my husband, who had the same name: Robert.”
Nicholson’s father, who his aunt and cousin say was not involved in his life, is suing state agencies as well as the group home and day program. He is seeking $20 million.
“This can’t happen again,” Daryl Zaslow, an attorney representing Nicholson’s father, told NJ Advance Media earlier this year. “The responsible people need to be held accountable to ensure that things like this do not happen again to our most vulnerable people in society.”
But how do we ensure that? Is it a costly lawsuit, or expanding MVP criteria? Each death is a devastating accident, and there’s no one size fits all solution.
“Part of the problem, adults can be anywhere they want to, they’re not mandated to be anywhere,” Hopkins said. “That’s a major problem with it. What do you do with that? How do you deal with that? You don’t want to restrict their rights, but you want to protect them.”
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