A California family filed a formal complaint against a Texas police department last week for being illegally detained and accused of murder after they called 911 upon learning their autistic daughter had gone missing.
Last Tuesday’s detainment by Amarillo police ended up costing the family valuable search time that could have saved her life.
Instead, 7-year-old Alexis Wartena, a non-verbal girl with autism, was found drowned in a nearby lake, a death that possibly took place during the moments of the family’s illegal detainment.
During that time, the complaint alleges the girl’s mother, Tiffany Stewart, was “repeatedly tortured emotionally” by “accusations of murdering her daughter.”
The complaint, which you can read here, states that Amarillo police intimidated the parents by threatening them with criminal prosecution and losing custody of their other children unless they submitted fingerprint, blood and hair samples.
Amarillo police also allowed the state’s Child Protective Services to seize Michael Wartena and Tiffany Stewart’s four other children in what their attorney calls a “Nancy Grace-style murder investigation.” The children remained in custody for almost a week until one little boy was injured in the hands of the state.
When the children were returned to the family Monday, the injured boy had “marking around his neck and bruising along his spine,” according to News Channel 10.
The grief-stricken parents were also prevented from conducting their own independent search even after they begged Amarillo police to let them continue.
“The parents begged to let them continue to search, instead of sitting there and answering stupid questions,” said family attorney Jesse Quackenbush in a telephone interview with Photography is Not a Crime.
The family was on their way back to California from their vacation in Chicago last week when they decided to stay another night at the La Kiva hotel in Amarillo after Michael Wartena began feeling ill.
They had just gotten back from swimming at the hotel pool for the second time and the children were playing inside when Tiffany Stewart came out of the bathroom and asked, “where is Alexis?”
At that point, Alexis had only been gone for a couple of minutes.
Michael Wartena immediately woke from his sleep and began frantically searching for his daughter, who he presumed had most likely “eloped” again, a wandering-behavior typical in autistic children, and ran to the front of the building hoping to prevent her from being injured by traffic on I-40.
Tiffany Stewart was not far behind when she yelled for the front desk to call 911.
Five minutes later, police arrived and the parents began describing Alexis as 7-years-old, autistic, non-verbal and attracted to water, which is also common among children with autism.
But the police didn’t assist the family to help find their missing daughter.
“The police, instead of listening to them, and without understanding anything about autism, jump to the conclusion that the parents are probably involved in the murder of this child,” Quackenbush told PINAC.
“They start questioning them like some Law and Order program.”
Alexis went missing on July 19th. Michael Wartena and Tiffany Stewart were taken to the police station that day at 4:30 pm and were not released until 5:30 am the following morning, only to learn their daughter had been found five hours later, face-down in the same lake they pleaded with police to search while they were being questioned.
When they returned to their hotel room, they found all of their belongings had been seized without their knowledge or consent and were left with no pillows, no toiletries, no phone and no clothes.
“They’re thinking this is a Nancy Grace murder case of a child,” Quackenbush said. “I’m critical of the police because they trampled on my clients’ Fourth Amendment rights.”
Quackenbush said police are supposed to be trained to deal with autism and should have listened to the parents instead of accusing them of murder and detaining them.
“They lost precious time,” he said.
“The first thing they say is listen to the parents, they’re the best chance you’re going to find this child quickly. Number two, go to water. Three, gather all of you personnel and go to the nearest pond or stream. Number four, don’t question the parents,” Quackenbush said. “Had they bothered to go online to read that, they might be a little bit better equipped to handle this situation.”
Amarillo residents created a growing memorial at La Kiva Hotel in remembrance of Alexis placing cards, flowers, stuffed animals and notes of sympathy for her family.
According to the NAA:
- Nearly half of children with autism engage in wandering behavior
- Increased risks are associated with autism severity
- More than one third of children with autism who wander/elope are never or rarely able to communicate their name, address, or phone number
- Half of families report they have never received advice or guidance about elopement from a professional
- Accidental drowning accounts for approximately 90% of lethal outcomes
- Other dangers include dehydration; heat stroke; hypothermia; traffic injuries; falls; physical restraint; encounters with strangers
Last week, PINAC covered two stories involving police that were unequipped to deal with autistic people. In one, five Oregon police pounced on an autistic man when he tried to explain the Americans with Disabilities Act after police began citing his disabled friend for having a registered service dog in public.
In another, North Miami police shot the caretaker of an autistic man who’d eloped from his group home even after the caretaker held his hands in the air for 15 minutes, yelling at the officers the toy truck in his hand was not a gun, that the man was developmentally disabled, and that he was his caretaker.
A police union president later claimed they were trying to kill the man with autism because they feared he was going to kill the caretaker with the toy truck.
The Autism Society of Central Texas created a free training video for first responders, which is 26 minutes long and includes information about autism to educate and inform various first responder groups who may encounter individuals with autism in their community.