Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Teen runaway with Asperger's spent 11 days living on NY subway

From The New York Times:

Day after day, night after night, Francisco Hernandez Jr. (pictured) rode the subway. He had a MetroCard, $10 in his pocket and a book bag on his lap. As the human tide flowed and ebbed around him, he sat impassively, a gangly 13-year-old boy in glasses and a red hoodie, speaking to no one.

After getting in trouble in class in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, and fearing another scolding at home, he had sought refuge in the subway system. He removed the battery from his cellphone. “I didn’t want anyone to scream at me,” he said.

All told, Francisco disappeared for 11 days last month — a stretch he spent entirely in subway stations and on trains, he says, hurtling through four boroughs. And somehow he went undetected, despite a round-the-clock search by his panicked parents, relatives and family friends, the police and the Mexican Consulate.

Since Oct. 26, when a transit police officer found him in a Coney Island subway station, no one has been able to fully explain how a boy could vanish for so long in a busy train system dotted with surveillance cameras and fliers bearing his photograph.

But this was not a typical missing-person search. Francisco has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism that often causes difficulty with social interaction, and can lead to seemingly eccentric behavior and isolation. His parents are Mexican immigrants, who say they felt the police were slow to make the case a priority.

“Maybe because you might not understand how to manage the situation, because you don’t speak English very well, because of your legal status, they don’t pay you a lot of attention,” said Francisco’s mother, Marisela García, 38, a housecleaner who immigrated in 1994 and has struggled to find ways to help her son.

The police, however, say they took the case seriously from the start, interviewing school officials and classmates, canvassing neighborhoods and leafleting all over the city.

Francisco says his odyssey wound through three subway lines: the D, F and No. 1. He would ride a train until its last stop, then wait for the next one, wherever it was headed. He says he subsisted on the little he could afford at subway newsstands: potato chips, croissants, jelly rolls, neatly folding the wrappers and saving them in the backpack. He drank bottled water. He used the bathroom in the Stillwell Avenue station in Coney Island.

Otherwise, he says, he slipped into a kind of stupor, sleeping much of the time, his head on his book bag. “At some point I just stopped feeling anything,” he recalled.

Though the boy’s recollections are incomplete, and neither the police nor his family can retrace his movements in detail, the authorities say that he was clearly missing for 11 days and that they have no evidence he was anywhere but the subway.

For his parents, the memories of those 11 frantic days — the dubious sightings, the dashed hopes and no sleep — remain vivid. “It’s the most terrible thing,” his mother said in Spanish.

Just what propelled Francisco to take flight on Oct. 15 is unclear. Administrators at his school, Intermediate School 281, would not comment. But Francisco said he had failed to complete an assignment for an eighth-grade class, and was scolded for not concentrating.

After school, he phoned his mother to say he was heading home. She told him the school had called and she wanted a serious talk with him.

His first impulse was to flee. He walked eight blocks to the Bay Parkway station and boarded a D train. It seemed a safe place to hide, he said.

When he did not arrive home, his mother started to panic. In January, after another problem at school, Francisco had left home and ridden the subway, but returned after five hours. “We thought this time it would be the same,” Ms. García said. “But unfortunately it wasn’t.”

Her husband, also named Francisco Hernandez, went to the nearest subway station and waited for several hours while she stayed at home on Bay 25th Street with their 9-year-old daughter, Jessica. After midnight, the couple called the police, and two officers from the 62nd Precinct visited their apartment.

The next morning, Mr. Hernandez, 32, a construction laborer, borrowed a bicycle and scoured Bensonhurst. He and his wife separately explored the subway from Coney Island to Midtown Manhattan.

They had been trying to help their son for years. Born in Brooklyn, Francisco grew up a normal child in many ways, his mother said, earning mostly passing grades and enjoying drawing and video games. But he had no friends outside school, and found it difficult to express emotions. A gentle, polite boy, he spoke — when he did speak — in a soft monotone.

In 2006, his parents had him evaluated at a developmental disabilities research clinic on Staten Island, where his Asperger’s was diagnosed. The clinic’s chief neuropsychologist concluded that Francisco struggled in situations that demanded a “verbal or social response.”

“His anxiety level can elevate, and he freezes in confusion because he does not know what to do or say,” the doctor wrote.

After he disappeared, his parents printed more than 2,000 color leaflets with a photo of Francisco wearing the same red hoodie; friends and relatives helped post them in shops, on the street and throughout the subway in Brooklyn. The family hand-lettered fluorescent-colored signs.

“Franky come home,” one pleaded in Spanish. “I’m your mother I beg you I love you my little boy.”

Francisco said he never saw the signs. He lost sense of time. He was prepared, he said, to remain in the subway system forever.

No one spoke to him. Asked if he saw any larger meaning in that, he said, “Nobody really cares about the world and about people.”

Sightings were reported. An image of a boy resembling Francisco had been captured by a video game store’s security camera, but he turned out to be someone else, the police said. A stranger called Mr. Hernandez to say he had spotted Francisco with some boys at a movie theater in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. A search turned up nothing.

Ms. García said one detective told her the boy was probably hiding out with a friend. She replied that her son had no friends to hide out with. Frustrated, the parents sought help from the Mexican Consulate. Officials there contacted the Spanish-language news media, which ran brief newspaper and television reports about Francisco, and called the police — “to use the weight that we have to encourage them, to tell them that we have an emergency,” a consular spokesman said.

Six days after Francisco’s disappearance, on Oct. 21, the case shifted from the police precinct to the Missing Persons Squad, and the search intensified. A police spokeswoman explained that a precinct must complete its preliminary investigation before the squad takes over.

The squad’s lead investigator on the case, Detective Michael Bonanno, said he turned the focus to the subway. He and his colleagues blanketed the system with their own signs, rode trains and briefed station attendants.

About 6 a.m. on Oct. 26, the police said, a transit officer stood on the D train platform at the Stillwell Avenue station studying a sign with Francisco’s photo. He turned and spotted a dirty, emaciated boy sitting in a stopped train. “He asked me if I was Francisco,” the boy recalled. “I said yes.”

Asked later how it felt to hear about the work that had gone into finding him, Francisco said he was not sure. “Sometimes I don’t know how I feel,” he said. “I don’t know how I express myself sometimes.”

Apart from leg cramps, he was all right physically, and returned to school a week later. But Ms. García said she was still trying to learn how to manage her son’s condition. Though doctors had recommended that Francisco be placed in a small school for children with learning disorders, she said, officials at his school told her he was testing fine and did not need to be transferred.

“I tell him: ‘Talk to me. Tell me what you need. If I ever make a mistake, tell me,’ ” she said. “I don’t know, as a mother, how to get to his heart, to find out what hurts.”

One of the fluorescent signs hangs on the living room wall. The others are stacked discreetly in a corner, and Ms. García said she was not ready to discard them.

“It’s not easy to say it’s over and it won’t happen again,” she said.