By Michael V. Cusenza
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on Monday reached out to the Department of Justice urging them to ensure that grant funding provided under Kevin and Avonte’s Law is directed toward local entities to provide wandering-prevention education and to provide caregivers with tracking devices.
Enacted on March 23, 2018, Kevin and Avonte’s Law protects children with autism or other developmental disabilities who may wander away from safety, according to the autism advocacy organization Autism Speaks. The law promotes initiatives that reduce the risk of injury or death related to the wandering characteristics of some children with autism.
Kevin and Avonte’s Law is named in honor of two boys with autism who died after wandering. Kevin Curtis Wills, 9, wandered from home, slipped into Iowa’s Raccoon River and drowned in 2008. Avonte Oquendo was a non-verbal 14-year-old boy who bolted from his Long Island City school in October 2013. His remains washed up on a College Point shoreline three months later. Law-enforcement officials concluded that Avonte had fallen into the East River and drowned.
Kevin and Avonte’s Law reauthorized and expanded the existing Missing Alzheimer’s Disease Patient Alert Program to include children with a developmental disability such as autism. The new Missing Americans Alert Program is administered by the Justice Department and provides grant funding to law enforcement agencies, public safety agencies, and nonprofits for wandering-prevention education work, as well as to provide caregivers with tracking devices that they and law enforcement could use to quickly locate a missing loved one. The program is voluntary for parents, and works in conjunction with schools, local law enforcement and other entities with experience in this area, such as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The law also establishes privacy protections to ensure that the tracking technology is used safely and the data is kept secure.
According to Schumer’s office, the Kevin and Avonte’s Law’s grant solicitation is being amended/reissued because the DOJ tried to fold the program and other smaller programs into funding a national center for police officer training in response to individuals with mental health disabilities. This was inconsistent with appropriators who intended for Kevin and Avonte’s grant money to go to local police, non-profits and educational groups that could use the grant funding to provide training and tracking technology to families who care for special-needs loved ones, New York’s senior senator said.
“I have serious concerns that deviating from Kevin and Avonte’s mandate will divert key resources from in-need families and communities,” Schumer wrote in a letter to Katharine Sullivan, principal deputy assistant attorney general, Office of Justice Programs. “These resources are vital in helping bring peace of mind to families who care for children, teens or adults with developmental disabilities.”
A 2017 report by the National Autism Foundation revealed that between 2011 and 2016, nearly one-third of autistic missing-person cases resulted in death or required medical attention. According to the Autism Wandering Awareness Alerts Response and Education Collaboration, and the National Autism Association, of these children, 74 percent run or wander from their own home or from someone else’s home; 40 percent run or wander from stores; and 29 percent run or wander from schools.