Justice Department Faces Scrutiny Over Autism Wandering Program
The U.S. Department of Justice is on the hot seat amid attempts to allocate funding intended to address the needs of kids with autism and other developmental disabilities who wander.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., is pressuring the agency to follow through on its obligations under Kevin and Avonte’s Law.
The law, which was signed last year, called for $2 million annually through 2022 for grants to local law enforcement and nonprofit agencies. The money can be used to provide electronic tracking devices to families of those at risk of wandering or for education, training, notification systems and other efforts to prevent or better respond to elopement.
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However, Schumer’s office said that rather than make funding available to local agencies as called for in Kevin and Avonte’s Law, the Justice Department folded the wandering program into a larger grant for a national center to improve police response to people with mental health conditions as well as intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Now, the grant solicitation is being amended and reissued, Schumer said.
“I have serious concerns that deviating from the Kevin and Avonte’s mandate, will divert key resources from in need families and communities,” Schumer wrote in a letter this month to Katharine Sullivan, principal deputy assistant attorney general at the Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs.
“As the department prepares to reissue the grant solicitation for the Kevin and Avonte’s program, it is critical that you ensure grant funding is directed towards local law enforcement, public safety agencies, and non-profits to provide wandering prevention education, as well as to provide caregivers with tracking devices that they and law enforcement could use to quickly locate a missing loved one,” Schumer’s letter continues.
Schumer first proposed that the federal government provide free electronic tracking devices on a voluntary basis for children with autism and other developmental disabilities who wander in 2014 after the death of Avonte Oquendo, a 14-year-old with autism who bolted from his New York City school.
Research indicates that about half of kids with autism have a tendency to wander away from safe places. While many parents use tracking devices to monitor children who elope, advocates say the devices generally incur a monthly fee making them out of reach for some families.
The Justice Department said it is working to respond to Schumer’s letter, but declined to comment otherwise.