The heartbreak and agony that Avonte Oquendo’s family has had to endure is one that I can’t even begin to imagine. Over the course of the past few months, Avonte became more than just a face on a missing poster. New Yorkers came together to search for Avonte and pray for his safe return; we felt like he was a child we knew personally. While we cannot change the past, we must take the necessary steps to prevent this from happening again—and that’s why I am introducing “Avonte’s Law.”
Avonte’s running away was not an isolated incident; running away or wandering among children and teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder is more common than one may think. In fact, nearly half of children with autism over the age of four have attempted to wander. Often times, these children wander due to being over-stimulated by loud noises or bright lights – something that is a particular challenge for children with autism in New York City.
I recently met with Vanessa Fontaine and Doris McCoy, Avonte’s mother and grandmother, as well as Michael Rosen, the Executive Vice President of Autism Speaks. Mr. Rosen shared personal stories about his son, Nicky, who has autism and is nonverbal. He spoke about Nicky’s experience with wandering. I listened intently when Mr. Rosen said that Nicky once ran out of the house and made his way into the neighbor’s living room to watch Disney movies—a fascination of Nicky’s. Thankfully, Nicky was found safe.
Our children are too precious for us to wait another day when life-saving technology and precautionary measures are right at our fingertips. Technology such as GPS or Radio Frequency(RF) tracking is on the market now, and they allow parents, schools and law enforcement to locate a child if he or she wanders or goes missing. The Department of Justice runs a very successful program that provides tracking devices to individuals with Alzheimer’s disease who have similar wandering tendencies. So, after Avonte went missing, I urged the Department of Justice to use their existing grant funds to allow children with autism access to these life-saving tracking devices – this past week, they did just that.
The program would be completely voluntary for parents, but it would be a major stress reliever for the thousands of parents of children with autism. Most importantly, though, this technology has the power to save lives.
That is why when the world learned of the tragic fate of Avonte Oquendo, I drafted legislation that will create a permanent program with dedicated federal funding to provide tracking devices for children with autism, as well as training and education for parents and communities. The legislation, “Avonte’s Law,” will allow Avonte’s memory to live on while helping to prevent any more children with autism from going missing.
Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Department of Justice will allow existing DOJ grant funds to be used for children with autism. This is terrific news, as it means that localities can soon put federal funds towards these life-saving tracking devices as well as education for law enforcement that deal with this issue on a daily basis. This is a major step in the right direction, and I will continue to work on this very important issue until “Avonte’s Law” is passed, which would provide a more solid stream of funding to help children across New York and the rest of the country.
We must be the voice of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Schumer was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1998. Following the elections of 2006, Majority Leader Harry Reid appointed him to serve as Vice Chair of the Democratic Conference, the number three position on the Democratic Leadership team and a position he continues to hold. In 2009, Schumer was selected as the Chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, which oversees federal elections, voting rights, campaign finance, and the operation of the Senate complex. He also sits on the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs; the Judiciary Committee, where he is Chairman of the Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees, and Border Security; the Joint Economic Committee, where he is the Vice Chairman; and the Joint Committee on the Library.