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Missing autistic child on subway raises questions of police procedure for runaways


Parents of children with Asperger's Syndrome know the children are prone to odd behavior, but  Marsiela Garcia got a shock when her son didn't return home from school.

When she went to the police, she  was brushed off, kids run away all the time. Garcia didn't take no for an answer, and made posters, publicizing the disappearance herself. She finally notified the Mexican Consulate to get some action from the police department.

Eleven days later, he was found, with the aid of the poster, by a transit officer, on the train to Coney Island.  He spent 11 days riding around on the subways, eating junk food and using station bathrooms.  Why?  He was worried he would get in trouble due to a situation at school.

For 11 days, Francisco Hernandez Jr. never asked for help, or talked to anyone.  And he has not said what happened to him during the time he was underground.

What does it take for law enforcement to respond quickly in situations involving children on the autism spectrum?  What education must be provided to help police officers and emergency personnel understand Aspergers and autism?  Would the boy have been returned sooner if the New York Police Department had taken his mother more seriously?  

Law enforcement needs to listen to parents of special needs children. This is not an isolated case in the autism community.  Kids with Asperger's elope sometimes, especially if they are feeling anxiety or stress based upon circumstances. Better communication between parents and police departments could serve to return children sooner.  Children with autism can fall prey to dangers that other children might be able to avoid, simply because they lack the social skills necessary to discern who is safe and who is not. Delaying the search for a missing child with autism increases the likelihood that harm will come to the child.

The police choose to wait a  few days because, "the (missing persons unit) would be overwhelmed if we took every report of a young teenager not home," New York Police Commissioner said.  But if police officers were trained more thoroughly in how to deal with special needs children, perhaps they would expedite situations like that of Hernandez. This time, the story ended well.  The child was returned home safely.  What about next time?

photo of NY subway, copyright Kevin Harb, used under cc

photo of subway, Coney Island, copyright Matthew Rutledge, used under cc


  • Carolyn 5 years ago

    Ms. Cruz,

    There are hundreds of children that go missing in this country on a daily basis. Many of those children may have more specific and complex needs and law enforement, contrary to what some may think, do take into consideration this when filing information that is to be shared on the missing individual.

    However we as a community, the ASD community, have been training first responders, the NYPD has a training that is specific to ASD. There are several programs that offer training and specific materials to assist first resoonders to best meet the needs of individuals with disabilities. Please feel free to visit to learn more, access some free materials, and hopefully you will share these. There is much out there, and if jurisdictions are not trained, there are many that can do so.