2016-08-03 / Front Page

Avonte Settlement Won’t Heal The Pain

By Liz Goff
The city has agreed to pay the family of Avonte Oquendo $2.7 million to settle a wrongful death lawsuit stemming from the tragic disappearance and death of the autistic teen.

The lawsuit accused administrators and teachers at Avonte’s Long Island City school and the NYPD School Safety Division of negligence for failing to monitor doors at the Riverview School, and for failing to supervise the 14-year-old who had a history of “running.”

Avonte’s mom, Vanessa Fontaine, established a command center outside the school on October 5, 2013, the day after the nonverbal teen vanished without a trace. Hundreds of volunteers scoured neighborhoods throughout the tri-state area for months in search of Avonte, setting off the most massive manhunt in the history of New York City.

Avonte walked away from classmates and supervisors at about 1 p.m. on October 4, 2013 and ran past a school security officer before strolling out an unlocked side door at the school. He was never seen alive again.

Fontaine was holding on to hope when she told the Gazette in a December 2013 interview that the media was steering the search in the wrong direction. “They keep saying Avonte was fascinated by trains, so everyone is searching subway stations and other rail systems. That’s just not true,” Fontaine said. “He liked to ride the subway and he liked trains like any 14-year-old boy, but he wasn’t fascinated. This wrong information is sending volunteers in wrong directions,” Fontaine said.

The distraught mom said she was planning to ignore Christmas 2013, because celebrating the holiday would take away time needed to find Avonte. “My son is out there alive,” Fontaine said. “He’s out there alone and afraid. And he has no way to tell anybody who he is.”

The search came to a tragic end in January 2014 when Avonte’s remains were found strewn on an embankment in eastern Queens. The remains were so badly decomposed that the city medical examiner was unable to determine the cause of death.

“The loss of a child is a tragedy no family should endure,” a spokesperson for the city Law Department said. “Hopefully, the resolution of this legal matter will bring some measure of solace to Avonte’s family.”

“No amount of money can ever heal the pain or somehow lessen the loss,” Fontaine said.

“I only hope the Department of Education and the city of New York take the sorely needed steps to properly care for all their students, especially the ones with special needs.”

Fontaine’s lawyer, David Perecman, blasted city officials for failing to address problems that existed at the Riverview School on October 4, 2013. “City departments hand out significant amounts of money to make the problems go away, but they don’t fix the problems,” Perecman said.

Perecman told the Gazette in 2014 that Fontaine and her family would never recover from Avonte’s death. “This woman gets up each day with the knowledge that her child vanished and no one even knew he was gone,” Perecman said. “Avonte was missing for more than an hour before the school notified police and his mother that he was missing,” Perecman said. “Vanessa Fontaine will have to live the rest of her life knowing that no one looked for her boy for more than an hour after he disappeared – an hour that might have saved his life.”

The Senate last month passed a bill named in memory of 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 – and before it’s too late.

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

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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