As thousands of people rack their brains figuring out how a school could lose track of a student with special needs, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has decided preventative action is needed in the form of tracking devices.
On Monday, the senator announced that he would introduce legislation called Avonte’s Law that will create and fund a program to provide voluntary tracking devices and expand support services for families with children who have autism or other developmental disorders in which bolting is common.
“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,” Schumer said at a press conference attended by Avonte’s mother, Vanessa Fontaine, and her attorney, David Perecman. “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.”
The program would be similar to an initiative Schumer introduced to keep track of people with severe Alzheimer’s.
Avonte, who had a history of running away, ran out of an open door at the Riverview School in Long Island City on Oct. 4. He was found in the East River near College Point on Jan. 15.
Children and teens with autism tend to run away for a variety of reasons. Most often, it is an attempt to avoid a demand or situation. It can also be a cause of sensory overload or a desire to see something or someone they care about.
“The tragic fate of Avonte Oquendo hit home with parents in New York and across the country,” Liz Feld, president of Autism Speaks, said. “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.”
According to a study conducted by the Interactive Autism Network and Austism Wandering Awareness Alerts Response Education, 74 percent of children with autism run away or wander from their own home or someone else’s home.
In addition, close calls with traffic injuries were reported for 65 percent of the missing children and close calls with drowning were reported for 24 percent.
Under Avonte’s Law, individual precincts would oversee the tracking devices in their area.
Though Perecman and Fontaine were happy with the proposal, it is unclear whether a tracker — that would be worn as a wrist band, clipped onto belt loops or put on shoelaces — would have helped in Avonte’s case as the 14-year-old was not reported missing to police for an hour and a half, meaning, if he fell into the East River near his school as officers suspect, it would have been too late to find him alive.
Schumer’s office said that they have taken this into consideration and may use different types of tracking devices. For example, one type would alert police as soon as the child walks over a certain radius.
Attorney General Eric Holder agreed on Wednesday to allow existing grant funds to be used to pay for the voluntary program, separate from Avonte’s Law, immediately until the bill is voted on.
“There is no medicine to relieve the pain from the loss of a child,” Perecman said. “However, Avonte’s Law will make sure that this grave loss and the pain it has wrought will not be in vain.”