At a press conference held January 27, U. S. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) announced that new legislation called “Avonte’s Law” that will start and fund programs to provide voluntary tracking devices for families of children with Autism. Among those in attendance were Vanessa Fontaine, Avonte’ Oquendo’s mother, Doris McCoy, Avonte Oquendo’s grandmother, their attorney David Perecman and Autism Speaks Executive Vice President of Strategic Communications Michael Rosen.
“The tragic end to the search for Avonte’ Oquendo clearly demonstrates that we need to do more to protect children with Autism who are at risk of running away,” said Schumer. “Thousands of families face the awful reality each and every day that their child with Autism may run away. Making voluntary tracking devices available will help put parents at ease, and most importantly, help prevent future tragedies like Avonte’s. By expanding the innovative program we currently have in place for at-risk Alzheimer’s patients, we will help thousands of families avoid what Avonte’s family just experienced.”
Also as a result of the Oquendo case, on Thursday, January 23, 2014, Autism Speaks, the world’s leading Autism science and advocacy organization, and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children announced the formation of a partnership to address Autism wandering incidents.
About Avonte’ Oquendo
Most of the people who follow television news in this country have seen the nightmarish image on the surveillance cameras of the Center Boulevard School in Long Island City, Queens. At 12:37 p.m. October 4, a security guard watched and did nothing as Avonte’ Oquendo, a nonverbal autistic child, walked out of the building and into the streets of New York City. His mother was notified at 1:35 p.m. and the New York Police department was called at about 2:00 p.m. Officials of the school knew, through his IEP (Individualized Education Program – a plan agreed to by the school district and the parents of a special needs student), that Avonte’ Oquendo had a history of wandering, which is not uncommon for young people who are on the lower functioning end of the Autism Spectrum. In addition, the school had several security issues that would not have made it an ideal environment for neurotypical youth, much less young people with special needs. Among them were the fact that there was no one to monitor the front desk, no alarms on exit doors, and no console for the security agent. None of the administrators in the school even had access to passwords that would have allowed them to view surveillance footage so it was almost two hours after Avonte’ Oquendo had disappeared before footage was accessed that would confirm that he was no longer in the building. The initial complaint filed by Avonte’ Oquendo’s family has now evolved into a wrongful death suit against the City of New York.
His disappearance prompted a search that encompassed several states and all points reached via social media. A reward of $95,000 was offered in exchange for his safe return, but ultimately his remains were found on the bank of the East River January 17. Hundreds of mourners gathered at the Church of Saint Joseph to pay their respects as Avonte’ Oquendo was laid to rest on Saturday, January 25.
An estimated 1 in 88 children in the United States is on the Autism Spectrum, a 78 percent increase in six years that is only partly explained by improved diagnosis. Autism is a general term used to describe a group of complex developmental brain disorders – Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) – caused by a combination of genes and environmental influences. These disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by communication difficulties, social and behavioral challenges, as well as repetitive behaviors (from Autism Speaks’ web site).