Brian Gewirtz, a 20-year-old Brooklyn man with autism, has been missing for a month. His parents hold out hope that the former Eagle Scout has the survival skills to make it through the recent cold days.
When someone with autism or other cognitive impairments wanders or bolts from home, school, work, or wherever they are supposed to be, it’s known as an “elopement.” Occasionally, there are devastating consequences.
Elopements emerged into public knowledge recently in the heartbreaking case of Avonte Oquendo. Oquendo, a 14-year-old boy with autism, slipped out of his New York City school due to a series of alarming lapses. His remains were discovered a few months later on the waterfront near College Point in Queens.
Such cases bring up larger questions about what police and caregivers need to do to ensure the safety and dignity of someone who might or has eloped.
In cases of elopements, the tasks faced by law enforcement include, first and foremost, ensuring the safety of the missing person. But they also include respecting dignity and civil liberties. As in so many other cases, the path between civil liberties and safety can be a narrow one, and we are just beginning to walk down it in cases of elopements of people with autism.
Recent tragic events have revealed that when police officers do not understand disability, there can be tragic consequences. The person with an unsteady gait may not be drunk. The person who does not respond to verbal commands may not be defiant. The moment when police find someone who elopes should be the moment he or she is safe, but that is not always the case.
Oquendo’s case inspired Senator Charles Schumer of New York, along with Senators Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, to sponsor a bill known as Avonte’s Law. Avonte’s Law requires the Department of Justice make grants to law enforcement agencies for finding people in case of elopements. Most notably, the bill would make available an optional tracking technology to families who request it. A source in Schumer’s office told me that support for the law is growing, and that they have received multiple expressions of interest from other members of Congress. Tracking technology might have saved Avonte’s life.
With tracking technology, however, there are civil liberties concerns. Use of tracking devices may be optional for the caregivers, but that does not mean it is optional for the person with autism—the caregiver chooses. It might be one thing for parents of children with autism to use such devices, but they are used with adults as well.
“We have this habit of talking and thinking about people with developmental disabilities as though we are separate from other people. In reality, there are lots of reasons why any person might want to leave home,” said Julia Bascom, director of programs at Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN), which advocates for the rights of autistic people. “Ultimately, searches for adults with disabilities should fall under the same complex questions we use when an adult without a disability goes missing. It can be hard to figure out intent, or if someone wants to be found, but these are questions we should be asking.”
ASAN has not taken a position on Avonte’s Law. “Whenever we see a bill ‘about wandering,’ we want to make sure that law includes extensive civil rights protections, that we are looking at underlying root causes such as access to communication and safety, and that police and the broader community are being educated about autism and communication disabilities,” Bascom pointed out.
“As people, we don’t tend to do things for no reason. Finding out why someone is eloping, and helping them find another way to meet that need, is ultimately successful,” said Bascom. “Many times, we find that the person doesn’t have another way to communicate: They might be bored, in pain, scared, or interested in something, and they either don’t have a communication system to let them say so, or they aren’t with someone interested in accommodating them.”
To caregivers who feel at a loss when it comes to preventing elopements, Bascom recommended this safety guide.
The source at Schumer’s office said the senator worked with advocates to balance concerns of civil liberties and safety, and that the bill offers protections from rights violations. While the legislation does not specifically mention protection regarding civil liberties violations due to tracking devices, it does state that goals of the legislation include facilitating communication, identifying signs of abuse, and training law enforcement “to recognize and respond to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.”
Officer Laurie Reyes and Officer Tara Wimmer coordinate the Project Lifesaver program for the Montgomery County, Maryland, police force. In Montgomery County, two or three people with cognitive disabilities elope each week. Reyes helps train new recruits, who are now required in Montgomery County to have training specifically in how to deal with autism effectively and positively. “If we can end a situation by offering a bag of chips as opposed to handcuffs, let’s do that,” she said.
Reyes said that tracking devices were useful, but should be as a last resort. It might lend a false sense of security, and it’s all too easy for someone to shed the device. And they won’t help much if, say, a neighbor’s pool is unsecured, or if the person wanders into traffic.
Reyes prefers what she calls a “total approach”: sending letters to neighbors to let them know someone might elope, ensuring officers can distinguish autism and can communicate effectively, ensuring people with autism get comfortable with some of the accoutrements of law enforcement (such as police cars), giving caregivers a script for when they call 911 so they don’t leave out important information, and encouraging caregivers to call 911 as soon as possible when they realize someone is missing. She teaches officers to consider the idea that someone may be eloping because a situation is abusive, although also emphasized that some frequent elopers had what she called “rock star parents.”
Reyes has gotten heat from those concerned about civil rights abuses for suggesting that potential elopers wear a bright T-shirt that identified them as autistic. She stressed the shirt was voluntary. But most of what Reyes had to say was in alignment with rights defenders.
After his press conference announcing the introduction of Avonte’s Law, Reyes met with Schumer to emphasize that tracking devices were not an end-all be-all, but part of a larger picture.
“We want first responders to be able to assess whether someone is lost or if someone is trying to escape abuse, and we want to make sure we aren't reaching for a one-size-fits-all situation when one doesn’t really exist,” ASAN’s Bascom said. “The most consistent thing we know about this issue is that people ‘elope’ for dozens of different reasons and have different safety needs. We can’t expect one solution to work for everyone.”