His name is Avonte Oquendo. He is 14 years old, autistic, and non-verbal. He has been missing since last Friday. Today marks day six that the police are searching for him and they still haven't found any leads.
As per the school's surveillance cameras, Avonte was seen running out the door at 12:38 p.m. on Friday October 4th. CNN reported that "according to the surveillance video provided by the NYPD, no supervisor or monitor stopped the 14-year-old when he ran out."
His mother, Vanessa Fontaine, said through tears "He is supposed to have one-to-one supervision at all times. He has the mental capacity of a 7- or 8-year-old."
I can't even begin to imagine what his parents are going through right now. Every time I hear a terrifying story of an autistic child missing, my heart drops. I know how easily this could have been my child and it just sends another wave of fear in me.
But how could this have happened? How could Avonte run out of the school without anybody stopping him? Why were the doors not locked? Why was he alone when he is supposed to have one-to-one supervision at all times? Even during lunch hour, there is supposed to be a monitor watching the children.
My son attends a special needs school and their doors are locked at all times. The only way in or out of the school is by the front office buzzing you in or out. Teachers can also open the doors by entering their code into the key pad that's beside the door. The gates in the school yard are locked as well.
This story has injected new fear and doubt in me. As parents with special needs children, we have to rely on others to ensure the safety of our children when they are at school. We must trust that the bus driver, monitors, teachers, attendants, therapist etc. will help protect our children who cannot protect themselves. And even then we hear horrifying stories of how some have used their position of authority to abuse autistic kids.
How much do we really know about the people that are supposed to watch our children when we are not there? How safe are our children?
There is a vast difference between supervising typical children versus special needs kids. When a special needs child requires constant supervision, especially if they are non-verbal, especially if a risk of elopement is prevalent, then this means you can't turn your back on them, not even for one minute. I believe the moment a person assumes the position of working with special needs children, be it attendant, monitor etc., it is their responsibility to ensure the safety of the child during the time that they are in their care.
Every day I send my son to school I pray that all goes well and I pray for his safe return home. It's an awful feeling knowing that your child wouldn't be able to tell you if something bad happened to them.
If Avonte went missing during lunch hour, how in the world was he not seen? What's worse, if he was seen, why didn't anyone question it and stop him?
There are a lot of questions surrounding the disappearance of Avonte. But before any of them get answered, the most important thing is to find Avonte, safe and sound.
I am praying for his safe return.
Follow Linda Mastroianni on Twitter: www.twitter.com/speaking_autism