Aging and infirmity are facts of life, and the elderly and infirm can unfortunately find themselves in positions where they live alone and must fend for themselves. Law enforcement provides these individuals with something of a safety net in case of emergencies – police welfare checks, sometimes referred to as wellness checks. Welfare checks are by no means reserved for senior citizens, but the majority of them do involve elderly people who live alone.
What Is a Welfare Check?
When concerned friends or loved ones alert authorities that there might be a problem at a certain address, a police officer will stop by the individual’s home to make sure that she is indeed healthy and fending just fine. This might happen because the person hasn’t been seen or heard from for several days or perhaps because she threatened to harm herself.
How to Contact Law Enforcement for a Welfare Check
Citizens always have the option of calling 911 if they have any reason to believe that an immediate emergency is at hand – and, in fact, they should do so. Maybe they were on the phone with the individual and heard him fall or call out for help, or they noticed someone forcing entry to the person’s home. This would be an emergency situation and it warrants the fastest response time possible.
Otherwise, calling the police nonemergency number is appropriate. The caller is simply asking authorities in the municipality or location where the individual is located to swing by and make sure that all is as it should be. The nonemergency phone number should appear on the police department’s website.
Callers should be absolutely clear about why they’re making contact with the police and why they're asking for assistance. They should provide as many details as possible. How police respond can depend on their assessment of a situation based on the facts provided.
The Welfare Check Process
Law enforcement personnel will typically knock or ring the doorbell first, then call out their presence and identify themselves as police officers. Callers who reside nearby to the individual who might need assistance can ask the police to accompany them to the individual’s home. There’s no guarantee that the authorities will agree, but the caller’s presence might be a calming influence for someone who’s in trouble – or someone who’s just fine, but becomes understandably alarmed by the appearance of police at her front door.
Otherwise, the authorities will mostly like notify the caller after their visit if everything is fine. And if everything isn’t fine, they’ll take whatever steps are necessary to render emergency aid or call for an ambulance and medical personnel if required.
Issues of Forced Entry
Police don’t need a court order or a warrant to perform a welfare check, and they can legally enter the residence if they receive no response after ringing the bell or knocking and announcing their presence. This can be something of a thorny issue, but it only makes sense.
Something might be seriously wrong if the individual doesn’t respond, and the situation might deteriorate or even become potentially deadly if police are forced to wait outside for a judge’s nod of approval before entering. The lack of a response gives rise to a reasonable belief that something is indeed wrong; it provides reasonable grounds to enter the house.
Individuals who aren’t experiencing an emergency when the police arrive have every right to deny the police entrance to their homes when officers don’t have a warrant. But again, this can be tricky. In a worst-case scenario, the individual might be held hostage and her captor has instructed her to tell officers to go away. It can come down to a judgment call by police.
Should You Call the Police?
Time can obviously be of the essence in many of these situations, but callers should nonetheless be pretty sure that something is wrong before calling the authorities for a welfare check.
Maybe Aunt Gladys calls every Thursday evening at 6 p.m., but she didn’t do so this week. This might warrant a phone call to her or a visit to her home to size up the situation, if possible. Calling the police for a welfare or wellness check would be a viable option if these efforts don’t result in contact with Aunt Gladys.
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Beverly Bird is a practicing paralegal who has been writing professionally on legal subjects for over 30 years. She specializes in family law and estate law and has mediated family custody issues.