In the nearly two weeks since a New York City boy disappeared from his school, neighbors and residents from all over the city have rallied to bring him home. His family and the New York Police Department have led the effort but perhaps no group has been more active in the search for Avonte Oquendo than members of the autism community.
Fourteen-year-old Avonte is severely autistic and cannot speak. According to police, he walked out of the Riverview School in Long Island City in the middle of the day on Oct 4, without being stopped by school workers or security, and was missing for an hour before the school alerted police.
Maria Koutoukas doesn’t live far from where Avonte disappeared. In fact, her own son’s school is just one train stop away from Riverview School. Like Avonte, he is autistic.
“My son is 12 years old and severely autistic. He’s not alert of danger, can’t speak or do much for himself,” says Koutoukas. “The bottom line is that teachers, aids, security, all of them in schools need better training. I work security at a museum and I just can’t believe that someone let this happen. There’s no way you let any child, especially an autistic child, just walk out of school.”
Koutoukas says she met with the Oquendo family at a makeshift headquarters set up for Avonte’s search effort to offer her support. She, like many others, has volunteered to help cover the city in fliers. In a city as diverse as New York, Koutoukas has even worked to get fliers translated to Greek. “They need everybody’s help bring him home as soon as possible,” she says.
Hundreds of people have helped to search long Island City and distribute fliers with Avonte’s face and description. The NYPD has devoted a significant number of officers to the effort and has deployed water and air teams to search the area Koutoukas describes as “full of warehouses, construction sites and a lot of stuff dangerous for any child, disabled or otherwise.”
So far, the department says they’ve received over 200 tips but none have proved fruitful.
Kpana Kpoto is a special needs advocate. The mother of an autistic child, she helps parents within New York City secure services for their children’s special needs. Kpoto also leads a support group for parents of children with autism in the Bronx. She says news of Avonte’s disappearance hit home for many parents and has caused dialog around safety issues for autistic children.
“Every day that goes by, we’re thinking about this poor, defenseless child lost out there. Many of us have children that are nonverbal. This could happen to any of us,” says Kpoto. “People with autism wander off sometimes and it can be dangerous. They don’t typically have basic survival skills or safety awareness. With my son, I always have to hold his hand. We call it the ‘mommy vice grip’ because we know that our children could run off at any second. Avonte’s disappearance has shown that we want to find better ways to keep our children safe.”
A $70,000 reward for Avonte’s safe return was provided almost entirely by advocates for individuals with autism. Mayerson & Associates, a Manhattan law firm that represents the autistic and the Manhattan’s Children Center, a nonprofit private autism school, each pledged $5,000. Then last week a $50,000 anonymous donation was made to Autism Speaks, earmarked for Avonte’s reward. Kpoto and other parents of autistic children are also now advocating for improved supervision systems in New York City schools and the implementation of a citywide monitoring system to help locate the missing using small devices.
“A lot of us have fight for one-to-one supervision in school. We’re told the child will be held back developmentally if separated from a class, that the schools don’t have the resources, but the safety issue is important,” she says. “And many of us have nametags with vital information for our kids but it seems that’s not enough. I’ve started a petition to bring Project Lifesaver to NYC because the devices aren’t available yet here; the police haven’t opted into the system.”
Project Lifesaver a leading search and rescue program specifically designed for at risk individuals who are prone to wandering. The company provides equipment and services for 1,200 international agencies: sheriffs, police and fire departments, official search and rescue teams and assisted living facilities. It works by connecting at-risk individuals to a local agency using a small locating device. Recovery time for those lost with the system averages 30 minutes. Unfortunately, the NYPD is not a participating agency.
Kpoto says parents aren’t waiting for the city to move forward, however. Her 670-member support group are in the process of placing a bulk order for GPS devices that would, hopefully, help to locate their children in case they’re ever lost. “Right now, my son is wearing a shoe tag,” she says. “I’m not proud to say it but I’ve had it for over a year and only put it on him right after this incident. It woke me up.”
Finally, police have advanced their efforts to find Avonte in recent days. New York City subway stations are covered with fliers and many trains are playing recordings that warn riders to be on the lookout for the missing boy. Thursday it was announced that emergency response also began playing a recording of Avonte Oquendo’s mother, Vanessa Fontaine, while patrolling in hopes the boy might hear it.
“Hi, Avonte, it’s mom. Come to the flashing lights, Avonte.”
Avonte Oquendo was last seen leaving his school in the Long Island City section of Queens. He was wearing a gray striped shirt, black jeans and black sneakers. He is 5 foot 3 inches tall, weighs 125 pounds. Police are asking anyone with information to call the NYPD’s Crime Stoppers Hotline at 800-577-TIPS. You can also submit tips by logging onto the Crime Stoppers website at www.nypdcrimestoppers.com.
Follow Donovan X. Ramsey at @iDXR