By Christina Santucci
Federal officials plan to start paying for voluntary tracking devices for autistic children who escape their caregivers following 14-year-old Avonte Oquendo’s disappearance from a Long Island City school that ended in his death.
The announcement was made by Attorney General Eric Holder at a congressional hearing Wednesday morning, a federal lawmaker said.
U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.)had proposed a tracking program in November and the senator unveiled a $10 million bill Sunday to fund the devices and expand support services for children with developmental disorders.
A spokesman for Schumer said he was planning to continue with his proposed legislation to supplement the Department of Justice’s decision, which will immediately clear the way for existing grant funds to fund the tracking devices.
Schumer’s bill is dubbed “Avonte’s Law.”
Avonte was last seen Oct. 4 running out of the Riverview School, a public school for special-needs children in Long Island City. DNA testing confirmed last week that the remains found along the rocky shoreline at Powell’s Cove in College Point were Avonte’s.
During a funeral mass in Greenwich Village Saturday morning, Avonte was remembered as a courageous child for dealing with his autism.
“This morning we are grateful to God for Avonte Oquendo, for his life, for his courage and for the acts of goodness and kindness that his life and his tragic disappearance evoked among us,” retired Cardinal Edward Egan, the former archbishop of New York, told hundreds of mourners who attended the packed public service at the Church of Saint Joseph.
The line to enter the funeral wrapped around the block as attendees waited to be let inside.
“People who don’t even know Avonte have just poured out,” said Rose Ortiz, a cousin of Avonte’s father, Daniel Oquendo. “[The family] cannot believe so many people have come out. They are so grateful.”
Among them was Yonkers resident Jan Watts, who hung posters around schools in her neighborhood during the three-month-long citywide manhunt by family members, law enforcement and volunteers.
“They had divers search the East River. They individually and meticulously inspected 486 subway stations because they knew Avonte’s interest in trains,” Egan said.
During that time, Avonte’s relatives remained optimistic he was alive.
“When he was lost, they never lost hope until his remains were found,” Egan said during the service, where he was joined by clergy from Our Lady of the Angelus in Rego Park, where the teen lived.
After Avonte’s white coffin was carried down the church steps and placed inside a hearse, family members led by his mother, Vanessa Fontaine, placed white roses on top of his casket, and white doves and blue balloons were released into the air.
“[Fontaine] just wants closure,” Ortiz said. “That’s what this day is about.”
The next day, she silently joined Schumer to unveil the voluntary tracking program, which would expand one already in place to find seniors with Alzheimer’s.
Avonte’s Law would create a new grant program within the U.S. Justice Department that would be available to law enforcement, schools and nonprofits that assist children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. It would authorize $10 million in federal funds to help pay for the tracking devices, training for parents, schools and law enforcement, as well as other methods to assist families of children who wander away from caregivers.
Tracking devices, which cost about $80 or $90 and a few dollars per month to operate, would only be set up for parents who choose to use them and could be worn as wristwatches, anklets or clipped onto belt loops or onto shoelaces, as well as woven into specially designed clothing, according to Schumer’s office.
“There is no medicine to relieve the pain from the loss of a child,” said David H. Perecman, the lawyer for Avonte’s family, in a statement. “However, Avonte’s law will make sure that this grave loss and the pain it has wrought will not be vain.”
Perecman, who filed court papers on behalf of Fontaine challenging the NYPD to release information about her son’s disappearance, said that on Feb. 5 the NYPD would be respond and shortly after, he expected to hear from a judge whether the family would be allowed to see the Police Department’s investigation.
Relatives were also waiting to hear back from the Special Commissioner of Investigation, an agency that investigates city schools, to find out if Avonte’s family would be able to view those files, he said.
“There are really two things that need to go on. No. 1, we need to find out where the fault lies here,” Perecman said. “The city of New York has to make us a promise that they are going to look beyond this case, that they are going to look into their school safety system and they are going to look in their schools, and they are not going to let more children to walk out of school.”
Reach managing editor Christina Santucci by e-mail at [email protected] by phone at 718-260-4589.