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COURIER file photo
COURIER file photo
Avonte Oquendo

A New York Senator’s bill to help protect developmentally disabled or aging individuals has moved a step closer to becoming law.

“Kevin & Avonte’s Law,” which establishes a voluntary alert program for missing developmentally disabled children, adults and aging seniors, passed the Senate on Dec. 21. It has been sent to the House of Representatives, where it is in committee.

Sponsored by NY Senator Chuck Schumer, the bill would create and fund a program to provide voluntary tracking devices and expand support services for families who care for someone with autism, dementia or other special needs where “bolting,” “elopement” or “wandering” from parents or caregivers are a possibility.

The move was in part motivated by the story of Avonte Oquendo, an autistic student who went missing after wandering out of his high school in Long Island City one day in 2013. After months of searching, the Rego Park teen’s remains were tragically discovered on the shore of the East River.

The bill is also named in honor of 9-year-old Kevin Curtis Wills, a boy diagnosed with autism who, after wandering from his home, drowned in a river by his home in Iowa in 2008.

Almost half of children diagnosed with autism have wandered from their caregivers at some point, according to a 2012 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics. A 2017 report by the National Autism Foundation also found that between 2011 and 2016, nearly one-third of missing-person cases of those with autism resulted in death or required medical attention.

The bill would renew the federally funded “Missing Alzheimer’s Disease Patient Alert Program” and expand it to cover children with developmental disabilities. The program would be renamed the “Missing Americans Alert Program” and its authorized funding level would be doubled to $2 million a year.

The bill would also ensure the dedicated Department of Justice (DOJ) grant funds are made available to local law enforcement and nonprofit entities to provide wandering prevention training and purchase the tracking technology. The locating devices can be worn as non-tampering wristwatches and anklets, clipped onto belt loops or shoelaces, or woven into specially designed clothing.

If the user of the device is discovered missing, the caregiver notifies the device company and a trained emergency team responds to the area. Recovery time for “Project Lifesaver” users, a maker of one of the devices, averages 30 minutes, which is 95 percent less time than it takes to find those without these tracking devices, according to Schumer’s office.

Similar services are only offered in two-thirds of New York’s counties, Schumer said. The legislation will ensure these services are offered to all New York residents.

“I hope that the House of Representatives will rally together to finally pass this legislation, which is essential to the families of loved ones with Autism Spectrum Disorder and other special needs, into law,” Schumer said. “Passage of this bill will help Avonte Oquendo’s memory live on, while helping to prevent any more children with autism from going missing.”

Schumer first introduced the bill in 2015. The 2017 bill was reintroduced by Senator Chuck Grassley, IA.

Read the full bill here

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