Mattie's Call a lifeline for the lost

Lottie Pinson knew her husband's condition was worsening when he started coming home from trips to the barber shop without getting a haircut.

Then, 81-year-old Joseph Pinson left for the barber shop Oct. 24 and didn't return at all.

Pinson, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, was found unharmed a day later more than 50 miles away from his Norcross home with the help of Mattie's Call. The statewide alert system for adults who have Alzheimer's, dementia or a mental disability is Georgia's version of what are collectively known as "Silver Alerts." Eleven other states have similar programs.

Relatives credit Mattie's Call with saving Pinson's life. They say he couldn't remember where he went during the night he spent away from home. By the time he was found, Pinson, a retired automobile parts delivery man, was almost out of gas and money.

"I think if we had not had the Mattie's alert, this outcome would be entirely different," Lottie Pinson said. "It would've gotten dark again and we would not have found him."

Mattie's Call works much like Levi's Call – Georgia's version of the Amber Alert for missing children. Information about a person's disappearance is disseminated to media, other law enforcement agencies, and on Georgia Lottery machines and signs. The missing person is also listed in the National Crime Information Center database.

As of Friday, Mattie's Call had been activated 127 times since state lawmakers created the program in 1996, with increasing frequency each year.

That pattern is likely to continue with the expected boom in the country's aging population. Experts say the number of persons with Alzheimer's will triple by 2050.

As such, Mattie's Call is becoming an increasingly important tool to help police track down wandering seniors, who have a 50 percent risk of injury or death if not found within 24 hours.

The challenge is getting police and families to use it.

"Time is critical in finding missing people," said according to Ginny Helms, vice president of services and public policy for the Georgia chapter of the Alzheimer's Association. "We need the Mattie's Call implemented soon after the person goes missing."

The Alzheimer's Association last year trained officers from 120 different law enforcement agencies in Georgia about how to use Mattie's Call. However, there are about 700 law enforcement agencies in the state and some officers are still unfamiliar with the program, Helms said.

In Gwinnett County, police contributed to a 12-hour delay in finding Pinson because an officer told family members they had to wait 24 hours to make a missing person's report.

"The frustrating part was we basically lost 12 hours simply because the officer didn’t know what to do," said Pinson's 32-year-old grandson, Mark Christopher.

Once the Mattie's Call was issued, it only took a few hours for a woman at a gas station in Morgan County to recognize Pinson and call 911. Authorities said the woman had seen his description flash across a lottery screen inside the convenience store.

Gwinnett Police spokesman Officer Brian Kelly acknowledged that the first responding officer in Pinson's case made a mistake in telling the family to wait, even though officers have been trained to handle such cases. He said all uniform officers have since been reminded that they should not delay in making a missing person's report and mobilizing resources.

The Alzheimer's Association estimates that between 60 and 70 percent of people with Alzheimer's disease wander. Five people have been found dead this year after straying from their homes in Georgia. Two more are still missing in the Savannah area, and are believed to be dead, Helms said. In some of these cases, a Mattie's Call was never issued.

The bill to create Mattie's Call was drafted in response to the death of 67-year-old Mattie Moore. The northwest Atlanta woman wandered away from her home in April 2004. She was found dead eight months later, in a wooded area about 250 yards from her front door.

John Bankhead, a spokesman for the GBI, said the alerts are often used in conjunction with other programs like a Child Is Missing (ACIM) -- a high-speed telephone alert system that notifies the community about missing children, elderly or disabled persons. Another helpful program is Project Lifesaver, which uses a bracelet that emits a tracking signal to keep tabs on people with mentally disabling conditions.

GBI records show that all but one of the 127 people who were the subject of a Mattie's Call have been accounted for. Nine were deceased.

Police call the GBI to cancel an alert after someone is found, but they rarely detail the circumstances surrounding the missing person's recovery. Because of this, it's difficult to isolate how many times Mattie's Call alerts played a role in finding someone, Bankhead said.

Kenneth Moore, the 51-year-old son of Mattie Moore, is gratified to see something  good come of his mother's tragic death.

"Quite often you see it on the early morning news or late evening news," Moore said. "You have to stop and think, it could be another life saved. It makes you feel good to see that it's working."

Mattie's Call alerts

The number of Mattie’s Call alerts in Georgia has increased each year since the program’s inception.

2006 (Sept. 1 -- Dec. 31)  -- 5

2007  -- 31

2008   -- 41

2009 (Jan. 1 -- Nov. 20) --  50

Total: 127