Last Saturday, Avonte Oquendo, the 14-year-old mute autistic boy who captured the heart of the tristate area, was funeralized. On Wednesday, Jan. 29, Attorney General Eric Holder threw his support behind Sen. Chuck Schumer’s proposed “Avonte’s Law.” Holder said that the Department of Justice (DOJ) would support a similar program, that would have tracking devices given to autistic children known to be “runners.”
Avonte used to run off, his father, Daniel Oquendo, told the AmNews. “This is not a new idea, but anything that could help is useful.”
After a private family gathering at a Greenwich funeral home, the public church service at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church paid wonderful tribute to a young boy whose short life served to create an interstate show of unity. From Oct. 4—the day he was last seen when he ran out of his Center Boulevard school in Long Island City—to the first discovery of remains in College Point on Jan. 9, thousands upon thousands of people actively engaged in a citywide search. Everyday people joined in searching along with police, the MTA and professional search and various rescue organizations and individuals, such as Donnell Nichols’ C41 Group and Texas EquuSearch.
The church was packed. Cardinal Edward Egan presided over the service. Perhaps surprisingly, aside from the priests, the only other person to speak was David Perecman, the now well-known lawyer who is suing the city on behalf of the family. Among other issues, he determined that the way children are secured in schools must be better.
Within the standing-room-only congregation were many detectives with their badges on full display, plus undercover officers. The cause of death has not been yet released by the medical examiner, and the NYPD has said that the investigation is ongoing.
As snow settled on the already iced up streets outside the ornate St. Joseph’s church, folks stayed mainly in their heavy coats. Many cried silently, participated solemnly in the mass and sighed heavily at intervals, almost as if to prevent a more audible display of the pervasive pain. As Egan eulogized and spoke of Avonte’s courage as he lived with his condition, a large photo of the bright-eyed young boy surveyed the full pews and the ivory casket brought in by his father and brothers.
Reports state that Avonte was cremated after the funeral.
The day after the family and the tristate area said goodbye to the youngster who put the issue of autism on the front page in most media outlets, Schumer embraced Avonte’s mother, Vanessa Fontaine, and announced “Avonte’s Law,” which will create and fund a program where parents of children who have Autism Spectrum Disorder can choose to have tracking devices placed on their children through “non-tampering wristwatches, anklets or clipped onto belt loops or onto shoelaces” or even sewn into clothes. Schumer then announced that the DOJ has agreed to extend a similar program of its own and allow existing grant funds to be used to fund voluntary tracking devices through local law enforcement agencies for children who have autism or other developmental disorders in which “bolting” from parents or caregivers is common.
The federal government already gives out grant funding for similar devices to track seniors with Alzheimer’s; Schumer said that the DOJ would now expand access to provide grant funds to include children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
“We are still going to push Avonte’s Law to make this more permanent, but it is a great step in the right direction,” said Schumer. He said Avonte’s Law would extend this program to include children with autism and other disorders, stressing that the program would be totally voluntary for parents, schools and law enforcement—nothing would be mandatory.
Schumer did point out that it would, however, be run by police departments or other local law enforcement entities, and would also provide funding for training of individuals on how to use and maintain these devices, as well as outreach for community members to better educate and create awareness. Parents would have to volunteer to be involved, said Schumer, citing that Massachusetts already runs a similar program successfully.
“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.”
“The tragic fate of Avonte Oquendo hit home with parents in New York and across the country,” said Autism Speaks President Liz Feld. “The incidence of wandering has reached frightening levels, and individuals with autism are especially vulnerable. We need to raise awareness and increase education so that tragedies like this never happen again.”
Funded by $10 million from the federal government, Avonte’s Law would work in conjunction with schools, local law enforcement and other entities with experience in this area, such as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. It has been much documented that children on the severe end of Autism Spectrum Disorders are known for bolting, running or wandering. If someone wearing the device goes missing, the device company and a trained emergency team is told immediately. One such company, Project Lifesaver, says that people are found on average within 30 minutes, which is 95 percent less time than it takes to find those without these tracking devices.
According to a study conducted by the Interactive Autism Network and Autism Wandering and Elopement Initiative (AWAARE), 49 percent of children and teens with autism attempt to run or wander. AWAARE and the National Autism Association say that of these children, 74 percent run or wander from their own home or from someone else’s home, 40 percent run or wander from stores and 29 percent run or wander from schools.
A video released Thursday shows an adult leaving open a side door of the Queens school that Avonte later ran out of. Perecman immediately queried, “How does a door stay open like that for 30 minutes? Second of all, why did the safety agent leave it like that for 30 minutes?”