Like most parents, Kristine Lanigan’s wish is to protect her children from harm.
That is why, on Easter weekend, she spent the night in her living room recliner, lodged up against the front door.
But Lanigan wasn’t protecting her family from the potential of a break-in. She was standing vigil, prepared to intervene if her 12-year old daughter, Skyler, decided to escape again.
Earlier that day, Skyler had been found wandering alone on Spring Hill Drive, walking amid heavy afternoon traffic on a holiday weekend. She had escaped through the garage, undetected.
Skyler, who was diagnosed with severe autism when she was 2, is a beautiful, dark-haired preteen with china doll features and deep brown eyes. But she is nonverbal, impulsive and lacks the filter most preteens have to warn them against danger.
Skyler looks like a typical 12-year-old. But her mental age hovers somewhere between 4 and 5.
Lanigan and her husband, Joe, are working with law enforcement and a company called SafetyNet to bring a radio frequency tracking system to Hernando County that would help find Skyler and others who wander.
SafetyNet provides a bracelet that is worn by those with conditions like autism or dementia. Law enforcement agencies are then given equipment and training to track a signal emitted from the bracelets.
Kristine Lanigan is still working to show there is a need for the system in Hernando County and doesn’t yet have authorization from the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office.
When children with autism wander away without detection from schools, vacation spots or even their own homes, sometimes the outcomes are tragic.
These thoughts were at the forefront of Kristine Lanigan’s mind as she spent two restless nights in that recliner in front of the door. On the third night, she surrendered to the comfort of her bed, in need of sleep. She hoped the worst was over.
But a knock on the door at 2 a.m. brought a new terror to the home. Skyler had escaped again, despite added security efforts. This time, she was recovered near the intersection of Spring Hill Drive and Mariner Boulevard, nearly 3 miles from the family’s home.
Skyler’s parents were motivated to make a change.
They created Sky’s WISH (Wandering Individuals Safety Help) to bring parents and caregivers together in a support group designed to approach the topic of wandering in children and adults with autism or other disorders, including Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Easter weekend wasn’t Skyler’s first time escaping. She had wandered before when Kristine Lanigan was raising her and her brother down south. Kristine Lanigan had joined forces with that community in an effort to bring Project Lifesaver, a GPS monitoring system, to those who were prone to wandering.
Now, with the backing of community members who are sensitive to the issue, the Lanigans hope to eventually bring a tracking system to Hernando County. But the group needs time to build advocates and raise money needed to support such a program.
So far, they have created a Facebook page and website for Sky’s WISH in an effort to gain support. A relative, Sara Hubbard, designed a logo.
Debra Grey, an exceptional student education teacher at Deltona Elementary, has embraced the efforts of the Lanigans. Skyler was her student and she and the family have remained friends for several years.
“This is something this county needs,” Grey said.
Her experience with children of varying disabilities makes her a true advocate for awareness and change.
“Support is so important to these families,” she added.
Deputy W. Cooper, of the Hernando County Sheriff’s Department, patrols the neighborhood where the Lanigans live. He followed up several times to offer support and any resources the family might need.
“They are really good people,” Cooper said. “They were scared and not sure what they should do.”
He was very supportive of Sky’s WISH, especially since the project could eventually lead to adopting a tracking system for wanderers in Hernando.
Cooper said there are specific protocols in place that the emergency services follow when a child goes missing. A tracking system would provide additional safety and options for emergency responders.
A support group is the first step, Kristine Lanigan said, to deliver the message that those families dealing with wandering loved ones aren’t alone. The next step will be to launch the tracking device system to secure their safety.
For information about Sky’s WISH, visit the Facebook page at facebook.com/skyswish contact the program at firstname.lastname@example.org. Those interested in joining the support group should call Kristine Lanigan at (352) 556-3774.
Email Hernando Today correspondent Kim Dame at email@example.com.