Autism, CPS and Wandering

Joshua Robb, an eight year old child with autism has been successfully rescued after running away from his elementary school and being lost in the San Bernardino National Forest for over 24-hours.

“Thank you … you saved me,” were the boy’s first words to rescuers — words made all the more poignant because he rarely speaks and his parents doubted his ability to appreciate his circumstance.

Those parents had lost custody of him to Child Protective Services (CPS) because they had tied him to a chair while they were in the process of moving from their recently foreclosed house. Apparently, they felt it the only way to guarantee that he would not run away in the confusion and chaos of packing and clearing out of their home.

While I in no way condone tying a child to a chair to prevent elopement, I also don’t condone CPS automatically removing children with autism from their families around issues of wandering. 

Ayn Hoare of Canada, the young child seized by that country’s version of CPS after she left her fenced yard and was subsequently found safe and sound still has not been returned to her father. Apparently, investigative reports of Ayn’s sometimes violent behavior at school led authorities to believe that she should be institutionalized and placed on anti-psychotic medication, then given to strangers.

Wandering has recently been given a diagnostic code in the recognition that it is a growing and legitimate problem. Instead of making parents vulnerable to losing their children, instances of elopement or misguided elopement prevention should bring families more needed services. Parenting classes on how to prevent elopement, tracking bracelets free of charge, respite care so that a stressed family can have a safe place for their child to be, particularly when confronting trauma such as a foreclosure, need to supplant criminalization of parents and the destruction of the child’s stability.

Obviously, even Joshua’s school couldn’t prevent him from going missing. Ripping a child with autism from their family, if that family is loving yet invariably imperfect, is no solution to the crisis of autism wandering. It sets off a tragic chain of events that takes months to unravel and trauma that may never fully heal.