2016-07-20 / Front Page

Avonte’s Law Clears Senate Hurdle

By Liz Goff
The Senate last week passed a bill named in memory of tragic teen Avonte Oquendo, that would provide millions of dollars in funding for tracking devices and programs that would help police and family members find the autistic when they go missing.

Sen. Charles Schemer introduced the bill in 2014 calling for federal funding of “Avonte’s Law,” to develop and distribute a voluntary, hi-tech tracking system that could have saved Avonte Equinox when he vanished from his Long Island City school in October 2013.

Schemer called on officials at the Department of Justice (DOJ) to develop non-tampering wristwatches, ankle bracelets or a “chip,” that could be attached to belt loops or shoelaces of autistic children to monitor their whereabouts. Most autistic children can’t stand anything that is strapped or attached to their body, Schemer said. “These kids need a device that can be attached to their clothing, something they don’t know they’re wearing,” Schumer said.

The program would only include autistic children and teens with disorders that cause them to bolt, run, or wander, whose parents approve use of the devices, Schumer said.

“The sights and sounds of cities, schools and other busy places can be over-stimulating and distracting for children and teens with autism, often leading them to wander as a way to escape,” Schumer said. “Voluntary tracking devices will help teachers and parents in the event that the child runs away and, God forbid, goes missing the way Avonte did.”

When a child or teen goes missing the parent, caregiver, or school would notify the company that maintains the device and a trained emergency team would respond to the location where the child was last seen, Schumer said. A similar program that decreases, by 95 per cent, the time it takes to find a child is already in use in Massachusetts, Schumer said. “That means the child can, hopefully, be reunited with his parents or guardian in less than one hour.”

Avonte’s disappearance from his school in Long Island City gripped New Yorkers and set off one of the most massive search efforts in the city’s history. Hundreds of New Yorkers from all five boroughs came to Queens to join in the search for the autistic teen, who was unable to communicate.

The search came to a tragic end more than three months later, when the city medical examiner confirmed that remains found on an eastern Queens shoreline were those of Avonte Oquendo.

Schumer suggested that DOJ award funds for the project to local law enforcement agencies, or organizations that would handle distribution and use of the devices. The Justice Department has already awarded competitive grants to similar organizations that assist is locating patients with Alzheimer’s disease.

“Funding this program will help put school systems and parents of children and teens with autism at ease, knowing where their children are at all times,” Schumer said.

“We know how to do it, we have seen it done, it works,” Schumer said. “Time was of the essence when Avonte went missing, and we ran out of time.”

The bill passed by the Senate authorizes approximately $2 million annually for 14 years, for programs to locate missing Alzheimer’s patients or people with developmental disabilities.

“At long last, Avonte’s Law has passed the Senate,” Schumer said. “We can’t let what happened to Avonte happen to another autistic child.”

The House of Representatives must approve the measure before it can be signed into law, Schumer said.

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