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Federal wandering legislation passes committee vote, gains momentum

April 14, 2016

Advocates celebrated this week when the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee passed S.2614, safety and wandering legislation known as Kevin and Avonte’s Law, by a vote of 15 to 5. The legislation aims to safeguard individuals who have autism or other conditions that may cause them to wander away from caregivers.

Kevin and Avonte’s Law is named in honor of two boys with autism who perished after wandering. Nine-year-old Kevin Curtis Wills jumped into Iowa’s Raccoon River near a park and drowned in 2008.  Fourteen year-old Avonte Oquendo left his school and drowned in New York City’s East River in 2014. 

The bill would reauthorize the expired Missing Alzheimer’s Disease Patient Alert Program and include new provisions to support people with autism.  

The legislation was introduced in the U.S. Senate by a bipartisan group of Senators  that includes Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York. Congressman Chris Smith, co-chair of the Congressional Autism Caucus also introduced the legislation in the U.S House of Representative this week.

The bill allows Justice Department grants to be used by law enforcement agencies and nonprofits for education and training programs to prevent wandering. The bill also provides access to resources to help individuals who become separated from their caregivers. The grants will facilitate training and emergency protocols for school personnel, supply first responders with additional information and resources, and make local tracking technology programs available for individuals who may wander from safety.   

“We’ve all seen the heartbreaking stories of families frantically trying to locate a missing loved one whose condition caused him or her to wander off.  We’ve also seen benefits of the Amber Alert program and other notification systems to locate missing children and bring relief to families through community assistance.  Kevin and Avonte’s Law will use similar concepts and other technology to help locate people with Alzheimer’s Disease or other forms of dementia as well as children with autism spectrum disorders who may be prone to wander away from their families or caregivers.  It also will make resources available to equip first responders and other community officials with the training necessary to better prevent and respond to these cases,” Grassley said in a release announcing the legislation. 

The tragic deaths of Kevin Wills and Avonte Oquendo underscore the need to safeguard children from wandering. According to a recent national survey, a third of children with autism had wandered within the past year.   

“We must move rapidly to implement the potentially life-saving precautions like voluntary tracking devices that will protect our precious children. That is why we are fighting for the prompt passage of Kevin and Avonte's Law, which will provide federal funds for voluntary tracking devices for children and expand services for families and children who have Autism Spectrum Disorder in which 'wandering' from parents or caregivers is common. This technology will allow parents of all children with autism, no matter their means, to use the benefits of a high-tech solution to an age-old problem,” said U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer. 

Autism Speaks has partnered with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and Project Lifesaver International to provide safety training and resources to more than 10,000 people with autism and their families and more than 11,000 first responders as well as hosting safety fairs across the country as a resource for local communities.  

“We all empathize with a parent who learns that their child is missing, including and especially when that child has autism or another developmental disability,” said Representative Smith. “When children with a disability or seniors with Alzheimer’s do wander, time and training are essential to ensure their safe return.”  

Angela Geiger, president and CEO of Autism Speaks remarked, “Kevin and Avonte’s Law would diminish the risk to children by awarding grants to state and local law enforcement or public safety agencies to assist in designing programs to prevent wandering and locate missing children.” She added, “We strongly support this legislation.”

If you want to advocate for safety and wandering legislation, be sure to sign up for autism votes here