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Avonte’s kin ready to sue city for death

Police search the shoreline in College Point for the remains of autistic teen Avonte Oquendo, who walked out of his Long Island City school in October. AP Photo/Jason DeCrow
TimesLedger Newspapers

Avonte Oquendo’s mother refused to believe her son was not coming home until she had absolute proof.

Avonte, who had severe autism and was unable to speak, disappeared from his Long Island City school more than three months ago. His disappearance triggered a citywide search in which thousands of volunteers joined his mother and plastered his picture in posters all over the city.

The search for the 14-year-old boy ended Tuesday afternoon when the city’s medical examiner confirmed the human remains that were found on the shore of College Point last week were those of Avonte.

The boy’s mother Vanessa Fontaine had continued to hold out hope even when police found size 5 1/2 sneakers and size 16 jeans near the boys remains, which were what Avonte was wearing when he ran out a door at his school.

“She did everything she could not to have to recognize this reality,” David Perecman, the family’s lawyer, told a news conference Tuesday in his Manhattan office.

When police also found Fruit of the Loom underwear near the remains, Perecman asked Fontaine if Avonte had any underwear of that make. She responded she did not know. Perecman asked her why she had not looked in Avonte’s drawer to find out.

“She said ‘I don’t want to,’” Perecman said.

Only when the city’s medical examiner confirmed the remains that were found were those of Avonte did she accept her son was gone forever.

A detective who became close with the family after Avonte vanished delivered the news to Fontaine.

“It’s Avonte. It’s Avonte,” Perecman quoted Fontaine as saying when she called him crying on the phone Tuesday afternoon.

Perecman said the family planned to move ahead with a lawsuit against the city Department of Education after DNA tests confirmed the boy’s remains were found 11 miles from where he disappeared.

“I am convinced in my heart of hearts, had prompt reaction occurred, had some of this cascade of errors not occurred, if the police would have been called, they would have went outside and they would have found Avonte before this happened and he’d be home right now,” Perecman said.

Fontaine filed a notice of claim in October that she planned to sue the city and DOE for not preventing Avonte’s disappearance from his Riverview School on 51st Avenue.

Now that Avonte’s death has been confirmed, Perecman said the lawsuit Fontaine intends to file will be changed to a wrongful death claim.

“The last thing in the world anyone should ever think as they kiss their child goodbye before they go off to school is that that is the last time they’ll see them,” he said.

Newly appointed city Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña issued a statement Tuesday, offering condolences to Fontaine and her family.

“Today our school community is in mourning. Losing a child is a parent’s worst nightmare, and I cannot imagine the grief that Avonte’s family must be going through,” she said. “As chancellor, I am determined that we learn every lesson we can from this terrible tragedy and do everything in our power to prevent incidents like this from ever occurring again.”

Police found most of the boy’s remains after a four-day search that started after a teenager found an arm in an area near Powell’s Cove Boulevard and Endeavor Place and notified the authorities.

Perecman said no one has come forward to claim the $95,000 reward the family pledged to anyone who found their son.

The family’s lawyer thanked the police, volunteers and the media for keeping the story of Avonte’s disappearance alive for months after he vanished.

Reach reporter Alex Robinson by e-mail at arobinson@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.

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