The massive search for missing Rego Park 14-year-old Avonte Oquendo continues, but the legal side of the case is just beginning.
Avonte’s family, represented by attorney David Perecman, has filed a lawsuit against the City of New York after the 14-year-old autistic, nonverbal teenager ran out of his Long Island City school and went missing on Oct. 4. A search of “unprecedented proportions” has continued for over a week, with authorities notably combing through every subway station.
Avonte’s mother, Vanessa Fontaine, commends the city’s efforts to find her son, but she believes that it took too long for the search to begin in earnest.
“It’s taken too long,” Fontaine said outside of a makeshift search headquarters tent at Hunters Point South Park. “I want them to re-track and re-search everything.”
As a police helicopter hovers just a few dozen feet above a police boat patrolling the banks of the East River, volunteers and family members come and go from the poster-draped tent, often with stacks of fliers in their hands.
In between whirls of the chopper’s rotor and the sound of waves knocking against the rocky bank, Perecman states how the worried family “deserves justice” after the institution that was tasked with keeping the child safe failed them.
“It’s a search of unprecedented proportions in this city; I’ve never seen anything like it,” Perecman said. “But how did he get away? There is supposed to be a 6-1-1 ratio at all times, six students to one paraprofessional to one teacher. Someone dropped the ball here, someone failed Avonte and Avonte’s family.”
He did not say what the suit seeks from the city.
No hearings or court dates for the lawsuit have been scheduled, as the process is still in the preliminary stage, but the efforts to find Avonte, who is fascinated with trains, have intensified. Authorities have expanded the search onto Long Island as well as into New Jersey, while Perecman states that the city will scour the subway system for the second time in a week.
In addition, urgent messages informing riders of Avonte’s disappearance have been playing over the PA systems of the city’s subway lines and over 3,000 fliers have already been distributed around the city, and a steady supply of posters will be put up in the coming days as well.
The incredible amount of volunteers and supporters has only increased in the last week, but the Riverview School, where Avonte is enrolled, has provided little in the way of support right from the time he dashed out of the building, according to his mother and Perecman.
“I heard it in the sound of their voice over the phone, I knew something was wrong,” Fontaine said. “They told me that he was missing but that they thought he was still in the school, that he didn’t get out.”
“They have been silent this entire time,” Perecman said of the school. “They haven’t said much at all since Avonte disappeared.”
Department of Education spokesman David Pena said in an email, “We have been working with police who are investigating.”
A $79,500 reward for information leading to Avonte’s safe return home has been offered, with the money coming from Autism Speaks, the Perecman Firm and anonymous donors.
More than 100 people were present at a candlelight vigil held for Avonte last Friday at Hunters Point Park in LIC. Fliers were handed out while attendees lit candles and prayed for a safe homecoming for the teenager.
Avonte was last seen leaving the Riverview School at 1-50 51 Ave. in LIC at 12:38 p.m. on Oct. 4. He was wearing a gray striped shirt, black jeans and sneakers. He is black, 5 feet, 3 inches tall and weighs 125 pounds.
Anyone with information about his whereabouts is asked to call Crime Stoppers at 1 (800) 577-TIPS (8477).The public can submit tips by logging onto nypdcrimestoppers.com, or by texting 274637 (CRIMES), then entering TIP577. All tips are strictly confidential.