PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — A new statewide missing persons alert system was activated by the Washington County Sheriff’s Office for the first time Wednesday night — after a 12-year-old boy drove off in his parent’s car.

Although the child was later found safe after having driven to a nearby relative’s house, his family told KOIN 6 News they were grateful for the efforts made by police and the public to help find him. Those efforts were helped by a new system here in Oregon: the Missing Endangered Person Alert (MEPA).

MEPA is designed to help locate individuals who may be vulnerable, due to their age, health, or mental capacity.

Communications Sgt. Danny DiPietro with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office told KOIN 6 News that using the new system police were able to partner with the Oregon Department of Transportation to broadcast an alert across highway reader boards within a 100-mile radius of where the boy went missing within moments of learning the endangered child was behind the wheel.

“We knew [MEPA] was extremely new, and hadn’t been used in Oregon,” DiPietro said. “But this incident met that criteria, which is someone who’s missing and endangered and it was also on the highway.”

Like an Amber Alert, MEPA allows law enforcement to send out a message to the public via phone. Police say they were minutes away from activating that phone alert, before they were told the boy had been found.

Unlike an Amber Alert, MEPA has no age requirements.

“It doesn’t have to be someone who’s over a certain age,” DiPietro explained.  “Anyone who is determined to be endangered, maybe it is an elderly person who has Alzheimer’s, or dementia, or something that’s going to diminish their cognitive ability. They will be absolutely eligible for MEPA as long as they’re on the road.”

The MEPA policy is a non-legislative fix brought on by an agreement between OSP and ODOT after Senator Janeen Sollman highlighted a gap in the missing persons alert system following the Ralph Brown case.

“I felt it was a priority because of lessons learned from Ralph Brown,” Sollman told KOIN 6 News. “He was a beloved community member and there were many people, family members, friends, community members, that were asking for help when he went missing.”

Brown, the former Cornelius Mayor, suffered from dementia when he drove away from his home in May of 2021. After missing for nearly a year, his remains and vehicle were found in the Willamette River in May of 2022, nearly a year after his disappearance — leaving many to wonder why there was no system in place to immediately alert the public when he went missing.

Sollman told KOIN 6 News the idea for MEPA came to her after she reached out to OSP and was able to get an alert for Brown out on leaderboards after he vanished.

“Two things came to mind,” she said.  “One, precious time — it needs to happen right away. And two, it was an equity issue. Because getting that information out there shouldn’t be about who you know, and who’s connected to the missing person.”

OSP data shows 133 people have gone missing in Oregon since May 1, 2022, including 97 minors and two seniors.

Sollman told KOIN 6 News the new MEPA system is all about spreading the word and maximizing the small window of time after a loved one goes missing to help ensure more people are not only found but found safe.

“It’s because of people like Ralph that I knew that change had to be made,” Sollman stated. “And to know that a 12-year-old could benefit from this program and this process is incredible as a mom.

“To imagine a 12-year-old getting in a car and driving is incredibly scary. So, I’m glad there was a happy ending for this young man and for the family. And I just want to make sure that there are a lot more families that have that connection with their loved one before it’s too late.”