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A Young Man With A Disability Goes Missing: How Do You Find Him?

Zachary Briley lived in a community for people with developmental disabilities.
Courtesy of the Briley family
Zachary Briley lived in a community for people with developmental disabilities.

Early on the morning of Dec. 19, his 23rd birthday, Zachary Briley went missing from his independent living residence after an altercation with neighbors.

Zachary was biracial, with brown eyes and a warm smile. He took anti-seizure medication, had an IQ of 69, and had the daily living skills of a 12-year-old.

He lived with a roommate in a Long Beach, Calif., affordable housing community for the developmentally disabled, where he received twice weekly supervision from a social worker and instruction in life skills from the Harbor Regional Center, a private nonprofit agency.

Parents strive to protect their children until they learn to take care of themselves. The stakes are magnified for children with developmental disabilities or mental illness, because their ability to fend for themselves may not match their chronological age.

Zachary's mother, Allison Briley, worried that he didn't know how to survive on his own. "My son is a mama's boy." said Briley. "He would text me after every visit home to say that he had returned safely."

His mother and brother reported him missing to the Long Beach Police that day. But Allison Briley soon learned that the rules about finding someone with developmental disabilities or mental illness are very different once that person becomes an adult.

For a search for a disabled or mentally ill adult to be escalated in the national missing persons' database, the local police must request it by classifying the individual as a "dependent adult," which can involve mental impairment under California guidelines.

The Long Beach Police Departments' missing persons unit investigates about 130 cases at any given time. According to Detective Erik Herzog, who is supervising the ongoing investigation of Zachary's disappearance, children under 11 are always labeled "critical missing," but beyond that age, the police assess the person's ability to care for themselves. Despite the family's documentation of Zach's disability, the police considered him "voluntarily missing" because he was living independently.

State laws are aimed at protecting the freedoms of developmentally disabled or mentally ill adults, allowing only limited intervention by parents or other relatives unless the person is underconservatorship, which transfers certain decision-making powers to a guardian.

"I think it is important to remember that people have fundamental rights, and one of those rights is the right to make bad decisions." said Katie Hornberger, director of the Office of Clients Rights Advocacy at Disability Rights California, an advocacy group. "And people with disabilities retain those rights. The goal is to provide services and support to develop good decision skills."

After Zachary disappeared, his family and friends roamed Long Beach, checking homeless encampments and distributing the flyers that the police provided. His aunt canvassed social media, getting local and national news coverage. Strangers sent in tips and contributions. A private detective offered assistance.

But not everyone got the word. While leafleting in Long Beach, Allison Briley met a couple of policemen patrolling the neighborhood. They had no idea who Zachary was.

Days of searching turned into weeks. In an article in the Long Beach Post, the police claimed Zachary used meth, based on interviews with the neighbors whom Zachary had accused of stealing his wallet and other items. The investigation was complicated by the fact that the neighbors and other people who lived in the complex were developmentally disabled as well.

Zachary's father, Gerald Briley, was frustrated with conflicting stories when he tried to unravel his son's disappearance.

"When the parents produce documentation that a child has a disability of some sort, the police need to take it seriously," Gerald Briley said. "They just assumed that he had a bus pass. That he was normal and high functioning. They didn't talk to me until a week after he had been missing."

According to Allison Briley, the HRC social worker reported nothing amiss when she checked on him two days before his disappearance. The money in his bank account remained untouched.

But a few weeks before he disappeared, Zachary had said odd things to family members and posted out-of-character religious statements on Facebook. "He wasn't thinking straight." said his father. According to his mother, Zachary had written to her on Dec. 16 that he was going to ask for a referral for mental-health therapy.

On Feb. 8, Gerald Briley got the call he had been dreading. A body that had been found floating by Buoy #1 east of Platform Esther oil well in Huntington Beach Harbor was identified as Zachary's by fingerprints.

According to news reports, Zachary's body was recovered on Dec. 31, but laid unidentified at the Orange County coroner's office until Feb. 8th. The coroner's initial exam estimated that the body was in the water more than a week, but could not determine the cause of death; no drugs were found in the body. His family is awaiting further autopsy results.

"The story about this young man is a story told repeatedly," said Steve Pitman, president of Orange County NAMI, part of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. According to Pitman, society has no failproof mechanisms for protecting adults who are living in the community but may struggle to care for themselves. "At NAMI, we spend a lot of time educating people and providing support for the family."

Alison Briley said no parent should have to go though this. "I would want the police to acknowledge disabilities," she says. "They don't have the proper training and resources to work cases for the mentally ill and disabled."

Her only consolation is that "I know my son was a great person. He was so loving and giving."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Wendy Wolfson
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