Months after a teen's disappearance mobilized a citywide search and raised questions about the safety measures schools should take for children with autism, a mother still seeks answers
Along the East River near College Point in New York City, NYPD scuba divers made a sobering find on January 17, 2014, that brought a three-month-long search for a missing teen to a tragic end: a size 5½ Air Jordan sneaker, the same one worn by 14-year-old Avonte Oquendo when he dashed out of his Queens, New York, school last October. As the divers scoured the shoreline, more physical evidence was located, providing enough DNA information to make a positive identification. "It's Avonte," his mother, Vanessa Fontaine, later cried into the phone to her attorney on the other end. The police had just visited her Rego Park apartment to deliver news of the medical examiner's confirmation. "They came," she said through a flood of tears. "It's Avonte."
"A SWEET BOY"
In 2002, when Avonte Jordan Oquendo was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) at the age of 2½, almost no one knew exactly what that meant. "No one handed me a package that said, 'Here, Mother. Here are all the things you need to do. Here are all the places you need to go,' " Fontaine recalls. What she learned is that ASD is a group of brain disorders characterized by problems with coordination, communication and attention, and sometimes intellectual disabilities. ASD is more common in boys than girls. Symptoms generally appear before age 3 and can include failure to make eye contact, speak or smile. Although fewer African-American and Latino children are diagnosed with autism than White children, experts believe that there are many unidentified cases due to disparities in access to specialty health care in childhood.
As a single mother raising five boys (Fontaine and Avonte's father, Daniel Oquendo, separated in 2002, and he moved to Florida), she drew strength from her older sons: Jason, Anthony, Andrew and Jovan, now 29, 25, 22 and 19, respectively. They taught their younger brother how to play Temple Run on a tablet, and how to give them high-fives and pounds. They even made him crack up with laughter when they play-wrestled him, throwing his lean body onto a bed. "Everybody had a turn with him," Fontaine says. "He was everyone's baby." Avonte's grandmother Doris McCoy was there, too, right from the moment Avonte was born, and she demanded her grandson be placed into her arms. "It takes a household to raise an autistic child," Fontaine explains. "One person can't do it alone."
The teenager's disappearance was especially hard on his brothers Andrew and Jovan, who still live at home. They were the ones who had to look at Avonte's empty bed every night. Andrew, who'd been enrolled at a computer school in Manhattan before his brother's disappearance, put his studies on hold, unable to concentrate.
A flash of joy crosses Fontaine's face as she recalls her son's "busy" personality. "Get out the cabinets, Vonte," she'd tell him affectionately when he tried to cook and "put things together in the kitchen." His favorite dish was macaroni and cheese. But like many autistic children, Avonte was unable to understand danger, or the threat of a burning stove. He looked like any other teen, but his mental capacity was that of a 7-year-old. When Avonte was younger and didn't sleep, Fontaine coped with his hyperactivity without the help of drugs, saying that they turned him into a "zombie." She stayed up nights with him even while working two jobs. She found a way. "I wanted him to laugh and enjoy his life," she says. And he did.
He loved music, Fontaine says, smiling. "Remember Jay Z's Fade to Black concert? He broke my DVD playing that." She says Avonte would sit on the bed watching the video over and over again, even singing along, in his way. "He'll put his forehead down like this," says McCoy, recalling her grandson's response when she asked for a kiss. "Autistic kids don't like to be touched," Fontaine explained weeks before her son's body was found, "but I don't care. I hug him anyway. And he would hug back too…but real quick. He's a sweet boy. Very, very sweet."
A MOTHER'S PLEA
As late as last December, Avonte's mother was still doggedly holding on to hope, determined to find her son and bring him home for Christmas. Ensconced in a three-room office in Astoria, Queens, that had become the Find Avonte Headquarters, Fontaine spent most of her waking hours there, poised at a small desk near the door, granting media interviews, directing search volunteers and holding council with anyone who might be able to help. "I don't think for one minute that he's not living," Fontaine said. "He's just lost.… But we'll find him."
The search for her son mobilized an entire city in an unprecedented effort that involved hundreds of volunteers. Immediately after news broke of his disappearance, the family set up an information tent outside the Riverview School that Avonte attended, where volunteers and members of the media soon became a neighborhood fixture. An RV was donated and parked on Borden Avenue for the family's use. And as news of the missing teen spread, New Yorkers of all races, ages and income levels flocked to the tent daily, donating bottled water and reams of paper, and reloading their cars with stacks of fliers to post on subway cars and lampposts. It was hard not to be moved by the constant whirling of helicopters circling the area at all hours, or by Fontaine's recorded voice pleading through the speakers of a police van that rode up and down the silent streets at night. "Vonte, it's Mom," repeated the looped recording. "Come to the flashing lights."
As the weeks went by, Fontaine began to wonder if Avonte had been abducted; she sought to get the case moved from the NYPD's Missing Persons Squad, where it had been since November, to the FBI. "There are 200 security cameras in that area," she said, referring to the grounds outside the Long Island City school. "But he doesn't show up on any of them? He didn't just disappear," she insisted over and over again. "Someone took him." Read the rest of the article in the April issue of ESSENCE.