How Cook County 'scent kits' can make the difference in finding missing people

When a senior suffering from dementia or young person with autism wanders away - and chances are they will at some point - every minute counts if tragedy is to be avoided.

Having seen too many families endure what he called "a huge problem" that's getting worse, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart teamed with advocacy groups this week, including Palatine's Little City, to launch a new program they hope makes searches for missing people faster, more effective and ultimately more successful.

Through the program, the sheriff's office is offering families, caregivers and social service providers free "scent kits" that could be critical to finding a person who wanders away.

"I don't think there's anything more traumatic than when a loved one goes missing," Dart said Wednesday. "If your loved one is a child with autism or a senior with dementia, the odds you're going to experience that are much greater."

Statistics indicate that half of children under 14 with autism and 60% of people with dementia or similar ailments will at some point wander from home. And Dart believes those figures are artificially low because many instances go unreported.

Just this year, he added, 766 people have been reported missing in Cook County.

  Cook County sheriff's office bloodhound Lulabelle and officer Anna Wilk demonstrated Wednesday how they use a swab from a scent kit to track a missing person. Charles Keeshan/

How it works

The scent kits contain a gauze-like pad, a special jar and labeling materials. Caregivers rub the pad against an at-risk person's skin, seal it in the jar and then store it in a freezer, where it can remain for up to 10 years.

If that person ever goes missing, the swab will provide the sheriff's department's team of four bloodhounds a clean scent to begin tracking.

"The most important part of our searches is the start," said officer Jim Pacetti, one of the bloodhounds' handlers. "Without a good, clean start, the search is a crapshoot. That one scent we present to the dog has got to be spot on."

Why not just pull a piece of clothing from the missing person's laundry pile or a pillowcase instead? Pacetti said those items could be contaminated by rubbing against other items or being handled by other people.

"This (kit) avoids any question about whether there's a contaminant on the scent article," he said.

Once given that clean scent, a bloodhound will track it until the source is located or handlers end the search. Pacetti said in one case, a bloodhound tracked a person for 8 miles.

Another key to a successful search is calling authorities for help as soon as a person is discovered missing, Pacetti said.

"Don't go searching yourself first. The sooner we can get the dogs on the ground, the better," he said. "Every minute counts."

To find out how to get a free scent kit, visit, email or call (847) 635-1188.

Just the beginning

Dart said the scent kits are just part of a broader program to address wandering and improve the chances of finding a missing person safely. His office is working with organizations like Little City and Autism Speaks to provide training to families and caregivers.

The effort also aims to increase public awareness and reduce the stigma surrounding wandering, said Rich Bobby, chief programming officer for children's services at Little City. The Palatine agency provides a host of services for children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

"It's not as simple as, 'Why don't you watch your kid?'" Bobby said. "Short of locking down one's home like a prison, which no one wants to do, (families and caregivers) live with this fear."

  Tom Simonian of Geneva won his legal challenge to a distracted driving ticket he received in North Aurora. A Kane County judge threw out the citation, ruling that Simonian was charged improperly under a local ordinance instead of state statute. Brian Hill/, June 2019

He fought the law

Former Geneva mayoral candidate Tom Simonian fought the law ... and he won.

Back in June, we wrote about Simonian's quixotic quest to void a ticket North Aurora police issued charging him with driving while holding a cellphone. We wondered why a guy who can afford to drive an $80,000 Tesla Model X SUV would bother paying a lawyer to fight a $75 ticket.

The Cook County sheriff's office is giving away 900 of these scent kits to help make finding missing people faster and more effective. Courtesy of the Cook County Sheriff's Office

Simonian recently won his case against North Aurora - but not on the points he argued, which included an allegation that his constitutional right to due process had been violated.

Instead, Kane County Judge Kevin Busch ruled the ticket should be vacated because the village improperly charged him under a local ordinance, instead of as a state violation.

Busch did not touch upon Simonian's claim he was picking up his cellphone only to push a button activating a Bluetooth connection with his car, which is allowed under an exception in the state's distracted driving law.

Simonian this week told us it's "a sad state of affairs" when constitutional rights and due process are ignored by governments.

"I had the financial wherewithal to appeal the verdict and win," he said. "How many thousands of innocent citizens could not afford to appeal and just paid the $75 fine?

"The city of North Aurora should be ashamed of themselves for allowing this practice to be allowed in their municipality."

In an email to us, North Aurora Village Administrator Steven Bosco said the village maintains that Simonian received due process.

"Prior to this court decision, there was a change in state law which provided clarification that ticket violations pertaining to cellphones in vehicles should be sent to the branch court," Bosco wrote. "The village's process is to send these types of tickets to branch court in accordance with the state law."

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'It is a principle issue': Why a Tesla owner is fighting a $75 cellphone-use ticket

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