Did New York City fail missing autistic teen Avonte Oquendo?

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Did New York City fail Avonte Oquendo?  Sure it did.

We don’t know much about the cause of Avonte’s death, we do know that the dismembered remains of the autistic, non-verbal teen were found in the East River.  Through DNA tests, the medical examiner confirmed the remains are that of the missing 14-year-old.  Avonte was missing for over three months, since October 4, 2013, when he walked out of the Riverview School in Long Island City, Queens.

He was missing as of 12:37 p.m. that day when he ran out of the school, according to the Department of Education.  And the assistant principal reported him missing 20 minutes later.  However, his mother was not notified until 1:35 p.m.  Moreover, school officials did not notify the N.Y.P.D. until 2 p.m.  All that time the administrators wasted, crucial time that could have made a difference in locating Avonte Oquendo.

So, how exactly do you lose a child?  The boy had a reputation for wandering away, and the school officials knew this.  Further, Avonte’s school suffered from a number of security and safety lapses, including no front desk monitor, no alarm panic bars on the doors, and no console for the school security agent.  Further, none of the school administrators had passwords to access the live security cameras in the building, and as a result they believed Oquendo was in the school at the time.  The principal did not obtain the password until 2:30 in order to observe the video.

The lack of safety precautions led this vulnerable child, who was afraid of the water, to wind up in the river.  In addition, that underwear found with his remains were too large to him have led the family to conclude that he was under someone’s control for a number of days.  It is no surprise the family plans to sue the city.

According to the Black and Missing Foundation—a nonprofit organization whose mission is to raise awareness about missing persons of color, support their families and educate minority communities about personal safety—the number of missing people of color is “astronomical,” yet the media attention has not reflected this reality.  Based on FBI statistics, of the 627,911 people reported missing in the U.S. last year, 240,411 or 38 percent were from racial and ethnic minority groups.  And African-Americans are overrepresented among the missing, accounting for 28.2 percent of those 18 years of age and over, and 37 percent of young people 17 years and under, like Avonte.

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke defines autism as “a range of complex neurodevelopment disorders, characterized by social impairments, communication difficulties, and restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior.”  Autism typically is known to impair a person’s social interaction and communication skills.  And according to the advocacy organization Autism Speaks, it is the fastest growing serious developmental disability in the country, affecting 1 in 88 children and 1 in 54 boys.  Boys are five times more likely to have it, and there is no cure.

Black children with autism are often misdiagnosed or simply dismissed as bad kids with behavioral and discipline problems.  Further, many urban school districts that serve low income communities lack the resources to provide the proper services to autistic children.

For people in the autism advocacy community, the Avonte Oquendo tragedy hits close to home.  “For every parent of a child with autism, this is the worst nightmare. The reality of wandering is something our community lives with every single day,” said Liz Feld, president of Autism Speaks.  “The circumstances around Avonte’s disappearance touched all New Yorkers and people across the country profoundly. We will work tirelessly so our families can find some peace from this never ending fear of wandering.”

Meanwhile, with a $70,000 reward and his face plastered on posters throughout the city, everyone knew about Avonte.  When parents send their children to school, including special needs children, they expect their young ones will be taken care of in a safe environment.

We do not know why the school waited so long to call the police and report that Avonte Oquendo was missing. Perhaps they did not care enough, as so many children find themselves invisible, neglected, underfunded and deprioritized in the nation’s public schools.

In these days of zero tolerance and the criminalization of schoolchildren, the police will quickly throw a child in jail over allegations of misbehavior in class.  Yet, the police are nowhere to be found when a child is missing?  And the boy’s mother is called an hour after the fact?  Surely, we must do better than this.

Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove