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Finding Our Missing Children with Special Needs

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I decided to title this article, “Finding Our Missing Children with Special Needs,” because the news have covered numerous stories across the nation regarding children with disabilities being reported as missing from their homes and schools, with some cases ending tragically. As a person with a disability who may one day have a child with special needs, this trend saddens me on so many levels.  A missing child is an unimaginable circumstance for any family to endure, but when a missing child is one with special needs, the situation is even more dire in the urgency to finding that child as quickly as possible due to the communication and health limitations that child may have.  Today, we are going to take an in-depth view of the statistics surrounding this unique population of missing children, and what can be done to decrease the number of children with disabilities reported missing.

Startling Statistics Regarding Our Missing Children with Disabilities

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (the FBI, also referred to as the Bureau) implemented the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) in 1975 to record the number of missing and unidentified persons reported in the United States.  Records in the Missing Person File are retained by the Bureau indefinitely until the individual is either located, or the record is canceled by the entering agency.

For 2012, the NCIC reported there were a total of 661,593 missing person records filed, which was down 2.5% from 678,860 missing person records filed in 2011.  The Missing Person File contains records of individuals who fit a particular demographic group.  For this article, the demographic group we will focus on are individuals who were reported missing who have a proven physical or mental disability.

When it comes to those with disabilities, the numbers are astounding.  In 2012, there were 30,269 individuals with disabilities who were reported missing.  Of that figure, 3,570 were those under the age of 21, and 26,699 were those age 21 and older.  The number of children missing in 2012 were noticeably less than what was reported in 2011.  In 2011, 6,340 of those reported missing with a disability were under the age of 21.  If we were to combine those figures, almost 10,000 children with disabilities were missing within the past two years.  Let that realization sink in a minute… 10,000 families endured the heartbreaking fact that they could not account for their child’s whereabouts or their safety.

Headlining Stories of Missing Children with Special Needs

In 2013, there were two stories of missing children with special needs that caught my attention.  The first story occurred in June 2013 in my home state of South Carolina.  15-year-old Daven Williams was reported missing from his school in Elgin, South Carolina.  According to The State newspaper, Williams attended Pine Grove School, a residential facility and school for children and adolescents with autism and other cognitive disabilities.  The school reported Williams missing early that morning, and officers from several law enforcement agencies began the frantic search to find Williams.  Sadly, authorities found Williams’ body in a residential swimming pool a quarter of a mile away from his school.  They found him six hours after he was reported missing.  This story tugged at the heartstrings of many in the Palmetto state, especially those within the Autism community.

A recent, ongoing case of a missing child with special needs occurred in Queens, New York.  14-year-old Avonte Oquendo was seen “skipping away” from his school in mid-October.  The search for Oquendo, who is also autism, as well as mute, has expanded to Long Island and New Jersey.  Officials has focused on searching the subway and transit facilities due to Oquendo’s intrigue of trains.  Passengers who utilize the subway system have been been asked to be on alert for possible sightings of Oquendo.  Those within the community have volunteered by joining the search efforts to find Oquendo.  Though each passing day without finding Oquendo is disheartening, let us all hope that he will be found and returned safely to his family.

The Unique Challenges of Finding Missing Children with Special Needs

Finding and safely returning children with special needs poses unique challenges to parents, law enforcement, search teams, and first responders.  The way children with special needs behave and act greatly differs from children without special needs, and these differences add to the hastiness to find them. According to the Missing Children with Special Needs Addendum, the following actions and behaviors may be undertaken by missing children with special needs:

  • Wander away, run away, or bolt from safe environment(s).
  • Possess a low sense of fear that may cause them to engage in high risk, and possibly life-threatening, behaviors, such as seeking water or walking in the middle of busy roadways.
  • Evade from search teams, even if they hear their names being called.
  • Seek shelter/places of safety in enclosed areas or spaces that may prevent search teams from finding them.
  • For children with communication limitations, unable to respond to searchers if they hear their names being called or if responders are near them.

The Connection Between Wandering & Elopement, & Autism Spectrum Disorders

If you are wondering why I highlighted two stories of children with autism who were reported missing, it is because children with autism spectrum disorders have a higher risk of wandering and eloping than children with other special needs.  It has been noted that about half of children with autism will wander and elope; close to one-third of these children are nonverbal, and are unable to communicate their identities to someone if they are spotted.  Children with autism who wander from safe environments such as their homes or school grounds have a tendency to seek bodies of water, or may have interests with active highways, trains, and the like.  Any of these predicaments or fascinations could cause the child to place her or himself in harm’s way while they attempt to “explore” these new surroundings.

In cases like Oquendo’s, when searches are extended, the fluctuating weather conditions could prove problematic to the missing child, along with the possibility of being taken advantaged of or harmed by child offenders or other persons with ill intentions, experience severe dehydration and starvation, endure falls from travelling on rough terrains, etc.

What Can Be Done to Bring Our Missing Children Home?

The key in finding and returning our missing children with special needs home starts with the quick and organized responses from law enforcement.  It is imperative for authorities to thoroughly search the bodies of water in the area, which should include residential and community swimming pools.  Having knowledge of the child’s interests will allow officials to pay particular attention to surroundings that the child may wander to.  The use of Amber Alert systems is also critical in allowing the public to be aware of the fact that a child is missing, and to the uniqueness of the case if the child has special needs.

The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children has two important resources, the Lost Person Questionnaire and the Investigative Checklist, for those in law enforcement to utilize in cases where children with special needs are reported missing.  These two tools allow officials to record detailed information of the child’s limitations and abilities, possible triggers and/or fascinations, behaviors and reactions under distress, and other imperative points that could prove useful in the rescuing efforts.

Ramping Your Voice! on This Issue

Writing this article was challenging due to the nature and seriousness of the topic, but I believe that it is my duty as a social worker and as a disability advocate to cover all issues related to disability, including heavyhearted ones regarding our children.  If any of you would like the opportunity to share your stories with me, please feel free to reach me at Vilissa@rampyourvoice.com.  In order to reduce the number of children with disabilities who are reported missing in our country, we have to discuss what puts them at such great risk, and what we can do as a community to protect them from harm.  One family with a missing child is too many; thousands of families with missing children are unacceptable.  Writing this article is my way of creating awareness surrounding this devastating experience; what are you prepared to do?

(Featured headlining image:  Courtesy of Pixabay.)

About Vilissa Thompson, LMSW

Vilissa is the Founder & CEO of Ramp Your Voice!, an organization she created to establish herself as a Disability Rights Consultant & Advocate. Ramp Your Voice! is a prime example of how macro-minded Vilissa truly is, and her determination to leave a giant "tire track mark" on the world.

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