A Call for Help | Autism-Based Elopement Awareness

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This image is of my son, Christian, during an elopement attempt.  Last Spring, just after turning five-years-old, he learned how to unlock our windows.  Prior to that, we’d mainly been able to curb his elopements through our home security system.  Still, he is smart enough to watch the lights on the alarm panel to see when he can (green) attempt an elopement and when he cannot (red).  He outsmarted the plastic doorknob caps, at the age of three, when he first began to elope.  We’ve tried social stories, stop signs on all doors, ABA therapy, you name it, we’ve tried it.  Still, almost 2.5 years later, he is becoming more and more of a challenge to keep contained.  He has probably attempted elopement well over one hundred times since July of 2013.  Most of those times, we catch him in the act, before he escapes.  He has never gotten off of our street during an elopement.  We are also blessed to have vigilant neighbors who work with special needs children and know how important it is to keep an eye out for him.

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Like many elopers, my son sheds his clothing during his elopements.  October 9th was his first elopement event in which his little sister, age three followed him out.  Following her big brother’s lead, she shed her clothing as well.  Legal matter aside, you can imagine how completely terrifying this is as a parent.  I can tell you that at no point does it ever become less horrific.  This event made me aware that I now had to fear losing two of my children to my son’s elopements.  That reality alone has had me reeling.

On the evening of October 9, 2015, I was working on a submission for school.  It was due that evening by midnight.  I had plenty of time to complete it and turn it in, so the littles going in and out of my room while I worked didn’t bother me.  I was glad to know where they were.  I had also gone around to make sure that the house was secure and the alarm was set, prior to sitting down to work.  So, I felt things were secure enough for me to focus on completing my assignment.  Then, as I worked, I had that eerie feeling.  It was too quiet.  I turned around to see that my bedroom door had been shut.  At that moment, I knew.  I immediately began searching the house.  At first I was just looking for him.  When Willow wasn’t in their playroom or the dining room, that was the first time I realized she might have gone with him.  The bottom lock on the front door was locked.  So I initially ruled it out as a point of exit.  The carport door was locked as well.  The backdoor was unlocked, but wasn’t a door he’d usually go out, since the backyard is fenced.  Still, I went into the backyard, called and looked for them.  I made one more sweep through the house, then realized he had apparently locked the front door behind him when he’d left.  Something he’d never done before.   The gap in our security occurred when the dog was taken out while I was working.  The alarm hadn’t been reset, giving him the opening to escape.

I went out the front door to see if I could lay eyes on them, also called out to them.  When I didn’t immediately see them, I went back in the house to get my shoes, keys and cell phone to call 9-1-1.  Before I got to my room, my son let me know that the police had arrived.  I breathed a huge sigh of relief.  They’d found him.  I had already set up a file with the Fayetteville Police Department in regard to his elopement.  He has very limited verbal abilities, so I had the file created so that in the event a neighbor found him who didn’t know us, the police department would know where he belonged and why he had gotten out.  It was one of the many suggestions made by AWAARE.org on how to prepare your neighborhood and local law enforcement for elopements.  I had also spoken to many of my neighbors during one of our neighborhood watch meetings, and circulated his photo.

That night, I answered the officers as politely and completely as I could, while my mind wrapped itself around the pure horror of what had just happened.  I was told I needed to get caps for my door knobs and stick-on alarms for my windows.  When I explained we’d already tried that months prior and he’d learned how to remove both, I was then told I needed to do my school work in a central location of the house.  I live in a ranch-style home.  There is absolutely no place I can sit in my home and work while being able to see every possible exit.  I also have my desktop computer in my room so that I can lock my bedroom door and keep him from taking it apart when I am in another area of the house.  To add to this, I am also severely hearing impaired.  So, I don’t hear activities like doors being opened, etc. like a person with normal hearing would.  Despite detailing our security measures and how he’d circumvented them, despite having proactively created file with the Fayetteville Police Department regarding his condition and why he elopes, I was arrested and charged with two counts of misdemeanor child abuse.

On October 12th, I made the following post to tell my friends and family who didn’t already know about the events of that Friday evening:

“Friday evening, while I was working on a submission for school, a hole in our security measures occurred and Christian eloped. For the first time ever, Willow followed him. I had a sense that something was wrong, and when I turned around and saw that my bedroom door had been closed, I knew. I went through the house first, then the back yard. I went out the front and called for them, and quickly went back inside to get my phone to call 911 and my keys to start driving around. Apparently, they only got a few doors down from us when a neighbor saw them, secured them and called the police. I have a file on Christian with the police department in regard to his elopement for this reason. So, if anyone calls, they will know who he is and where he belongs. As per his usual elopement behavior, Christian stripped out of his clothing prior to elopement, and copying her brother, Willow did as well.

The thought of losing both of my littles to Christian’s elopement is something that is killing me inside. The fear, panic and sickness inside never diminishes, no matter how many times he elopes, it is just as horrifying as the first time. I cannot even accurately explain how this effects my daily thought patterns. Even though I’ve done the research and it has explained that it isn’t humanly possible to completely prevent those with severe tendencies like his from getting out, it still creates a huge amount of guilt that I cannot keep my child safe. Sometimes, he will attempt elopement several times in a day. Sometimes we have better luck and it is only a few times a week. Since April, it has been relentless.

This is one of the hardest posts I hope to ever have to make in my life. I have been in prayer about it nonstop since the events of Friday night. While most would stay silent out of fear of judgement, it is a risk I am willing to take.

Those who truly know me and my children know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, this situation does not define me as a parent. I have never, nor will I ever neglect my children. They are my life. I would never willfully allow them to be put in harm’s way. Despite this, and despite my letting them know of Christian’s autism-based elopement issues, I was arrested on two counts of child abuse.

This cannot be how elopement is handled. We need support and solutions, especially for those, like myself, who have repeatedly asked for help and advice (from FPD officers, DSS workers & The Autism Society of Cumberland County) on how to secure him. Throwing a bunch of things at me I’ve already tried and he’s already very quickly learned to circumvent, is not helpful. Telling me I need to do better watching my children is not helpful. Arresting me is not bringing any solution to the situation. Leaving my littles with my teenage children while I am arrested and processed, is certainly not helpful.

After hearing horror stories of citations and arrests of parents of children with elopement issues, my previous dealings with local law enforcement left me feeling blessed that I lived in a city where they “got it”. Friday night, it literally broke me to learn how wrong I was. I can’t eat, I can’t sleep. All I can do is go over things a million times in my head to see what I could have possibly done differently.

The officers that responded told my teen son that he needs to do a better job and step up in watching his brother. Anyone who knows anything about severe elopement tendencies knows just how messed up them doing that was. God forbid something should happen to Christian, Chris would already never forgive himself. FPD took it upon themselves to place a burden on a kid that no one should bare. We all know what is at stake in this house, and we all take keeping him secured very seriously, but with what we have in place right now, it is impossible to keep him contained 100% of the time, and every security measure is subject to human error.

A study done by the American Academy of Pediatrics posted out the very valid argument that autistic children with elopement behaviors are 4 times more likely to go missing than their neurotypical siblings. That alone shows that the events are not a result of bad parenting or being inattentive, but having a child who is hyper-vigilant to opportunities to bolt.

“Advocacy groups have reported that children with ASD are more difficult to keep safe because of their wandering behavior, and that parents fear being viewed as neglectful when these children succeed in escaping safe spaces. These data illustrate that unaffected siblings have much lower rates of elopement than children with ASD and it is doubtful that, as a group, these parents are remiss in keeping children safe.” (Anderson et all 2012)

The actions of the Fayetteville Police Department took an already incredibly difficult situation and made it much worse. They have added a whole new level to the nightmare we were already living. Now, when he elopes, I know I can no longer call on first responders for help. This is a HUGE blow to the safety of not only my child, but the children of others facing this issue as well.

I have to think that somehow, God will use this struggle to bring some good to this situation. Otherwise, this event could be the one thing I cannot come back from. It has the potential to literally break my family. If convicted, I could face up to a year in jail. Unless the arrest is completely expunged, my degree is now worthless, and I wouldn’t even be able to get into a masters program, much less get certified and get a job in the field. I have to hope and pray that God will see us through this. I desperately need your prayers, and your support, this is something that HAS to change.”

Pediatrics Vol. 130 No. 5 November 1, 2012
pp. 870 -877
(doi: 10.1542/peds.2012-0762)

I cannot thank my friends and family enough for the love and prayers we’ve been shown since that post was made. Everyone I have talked to in the autism community and those in law enforcement who are educated in regard to autism-based elopement have been horrified to learn of my arrest. My son’s teachers, therapists and even his Project Lifesaver representative from the Cumberland County Sherriff’s Department have all been in disbelief. They are not alone. It still seems like a nightmare to me. Like I will wake up, and it will have just been some horrible dream.

As a Christian, I truly believe that everything happens for a reason, even the darkest challenges we face. It is my hope that I can get my family through this as well as raise awareness for those who also face the challenges elopement behaviors present.  No family should have to go through this. It has truly been like adding another layer of pain to an already very painful, emotional situation. A nightmare within a nightmare.

Families with children who bolt are faced with the task of being hypervigilant, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and 365 days a year. There are no days off, no date nights where you leave your child with a babysitter. Our wanderers are worth every second of vigilance and safety measures that it takes to try to keep them safe, but 100% containment is just not humanly possible.

2015ElopementFact4My arrest came during midterms. I was enrolled full-time and actually missed one midterm and an assignment submission that evening, due to my arrest. I have since made the decision to withdraw from classes this semester. It is just not possible to successfully complete the semester while also gathering documents and preparing for this court case.

As I prepare to defend myself legally, I have been blessed to have had my case accepted by one of the best attorneys in my area. I am so very grateful to both the Autism Society of North Carolina and the Autism Society of Cumberland County for the role they played in securing my attorney in this case.  However, while he is no doubt handling my case for far less than his normal rate, he is unable to do so completely free of charge. I need to raise at least $1000 prior to November 9th in order to get the process rolling in my defense. That is just the beginning of my legal fees. At this time, I do not have an estimate as to how much they might reach.

My family’s life literally hangs in the balance of the legal system. If this arrest isn’t completely expunged, my psychology degree will be worthless. I was to begin a Masters of Social Work degree program in the Fall. These events could mean that will not happen. The lasting effect would leave me with no means to adequately support myself and my four children. My last three years of school will have been for nothing.

I was blessed with a friend who actually offered to make the call for donations to help my family through this. My pride nearly allowed him to do just that. You see, it is one of the hardest things to admit, as a parent, that you aren’t enough. Just typing those words actually has me in tears. Still, this is one of those times when life has handed me just more than I can possibly take on alone. I have included a link below for those who wish to donate toward my legal fund. Any amount you can give will put us closer to my family being able to put this behind us. It will put me closer to making sure this does not happen to another family of an eloper.

If you are unable to give, I urge you to please call your congressmen and senators and tell them that you support Avonte’s Law Act of 2015. It is an act that would allow grants to be used to educate school officials and law enforcement on how to properly handle elopement events.  Other ways of how you can help support Avonte’s Law can be found HERE.  As always, your thoughts and prayers are also truly appreciated during this time.

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  • Earl Jules - Amy,
    I’m sharing your heart-felt journal page with family and friends here in Hawaii and help you extend the reach of your call for help. There are compassionate and helpful people everywhere, and I hope that this share might bring some calm to the storm you’re in right now.

    God bless you. . .ReplyCancel

  • a-vanwyk@hotmail.com - Thank you Earl. I truly appreciate your thoughts and prayers, as well as your having shared this post.ReplyCancel

  • Jessica - My heart goes out to you. Your local law enforcement is absolutely wrong. You are living the one of the worst fears we have as autism parents. The top fear being your child not making it safely home. You are doing everything you can to protect your children, and I hope a good lawyer will demonstrate that.

    You need to petition your local managed care organization for an emergency NC Innovations Waiver slot. Do it now. Does Fayetville have Project Lifesaver yet?

    Wish you all the best.ReplyCancel

    • a-vanwyk@hotmail.com - Thank you for your kind thoughts and well wishes. He was just approved for the waiver this past Thursday and was enrolled in Project LifeSaver on the 26th of last month. Thankfully, the Sherriff’s Department handles Project LifeSaver and we will no longer need to contact the Fayetteville Police Department in the event of an elopement. As you can imagine, my family is ready to put this legal nightmare behind us.ReplyCancel

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