The news of Avonte Oquendo’s death came in a text from a dear friend on a cold Tuesday afternoon. “It was Avonte,” she wrote. My body went numb. No! It could not be.
Avonte’s parents sent him to school on October 4th 2013 and they expected him to come home to them. They trusted the Riverview School and the New York City Department of Education to look after him. They put their trust in a city that let them down.
When DNA results confirmed that Avonte’s remains had been found along the banks of the East River in College Point Queens, I did not want to believe it. Even as his remains and clothing were slowly discovered over the weekend, I was in denial. Then it sunk in and I began to cry. Standing right there in Penn Station waiting for my husband to come out of the restroom, I cried.
Yet as my tears fell, I knew the autism community had also been rocked to the core. I knew that parents everywhere were grieving. I knew that anyone with a heart was grieving. We grieved because Avonte did not deserve this. We grieved because we felt deep pain for his family who never gave up on him.
We remembered the tent. We remembered the flyers. We remembered posting flyers of Avonte in our neighborhoods. We remembered sharing his flyers via social media. We remembered hearing about him over the subway intercom. We remembered urging the main stream media to cover his disappearance. We remembered being afraid because Avonte had become OUR child and he was missing.
Whenever a child with autism wanders and goes missing, we all hold our breath. We hold our breath because we are praying for a happy ending. We know the reality of wandering in the autism community. We know that the statistics are scary. We know that it could happen to ANY of us. This story did not have a happy ending and our hearts bleed for Avonte’s parents and his entire family. They worked so hard. They never give up.
As the investigation into Avonte’s death commences, I implore Mayor DeBlasio and Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina to admit the city’s wrongdoing and settle with Avonte’s family once the planned lawsuit is filed. His family does not deserve to be put through the agony of a long and drawn out case. I also implore the city to finally take a long hard look at how children with special needs are placed in New York City schools, how they are kept safe, and how school buildings are secured.
Next, I am asking the federal government to implement a voluntary national program for GPS tracking devices for children with autism and developmental disorders, as proposed for New York by U.S. Senator Charles Schumer in November 2013. I am also asking for a national alert system like the Amber Alert that can be activated whenever a person with autism goes missing.
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We must continue to show the tenacity and passion for change that we showed when Avonte disappeared. As Avonte’s brother Danny Oquendo, Jr. said on Instagram: “The tenacity the World, especially NYC, has shown in regards to finding Avonte and spreading awareness has been unmatched in comparison to any other Missing Child investigation.” We must not lose this momentum.
To the Oquendo family I say: We will continue to spread awareness. We will not rest until proper safety protocols are put in place in our schools, so that this never happens again. Our hearts ache for you. Please accept our sympathy.
Avonte’s family will hold a private funeral for him this Saturday, January 25th and the public can send their condolences to his family via the Greenwich Village Funeral Home Web site.
BMWK: What words of comfort can you give to the Oquendo family as they grieve the loss of their son?