Wandering boy stirs camp concerns

Camp staffers delayed calling police to search for missing boy

July 02, 2008|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Sun reporter

Kristen Detwiler had just merged onto busy Route 100 in Ellicott City one afternoon last week when she saw a shocking sight: Her 7-year-old autistic son was running against traffic on the right shoulder.

"I slammed on the brakes and started running after him yelling, 'Stop, Colin, it's Mommy! Stop! stop!'" she recalled.

Detwiler gathered up her son as other motorists called 911. A county police officer arrived and accompanied Detwiler back to Veterans Elementary School, the site of a county-sponsored summer day camp from which her son had wandered off.

Though the boy was unharmed, Detwiler, an Ellicott City resident, said she is angry that camp staffers did not call police earlier and that after the incident, she did not receive a call from a high-ranking parks department official for two days.

"We're talking about a lost kid with autism," Detwiler said. "There should have been an ambulance, a helicopter, immediate police. It took them 30 minutes" to call 911.

County officials say that though staff members followed protocol for searching for a missing child, the search was too extensive, delaying a call to the police.

The incident occurred June 23 during the opening day of the Summer Sunsations day camp offered by the Department of Recreation and Parks at several locations throughout the county. The boy walked away from the site even though a 19-year old staff member, or "companion," was responsible for directly supervising him.

Colin had walked about a mile across congested Route 103, past the Long Gate Shopping Center, down Long Gate Parkway onto a bridge over Route 100 and down onto the highway, walking toward oncoming vehicles.

Gary J. Arthur, director of Recreation and Parks, said the incident resulted from a momentary distraction but agreed that police should have been called sooner.

"We're just very thankful the child wasn't injured," Arthur said.

Arthur said the companion turned away briefly while Colin was playing behind stage curtains in the school's cafeteria/auditorium after attendance was taken at 3 p.m. Once it became apparent that the boy was missing, all staffers were alerted and a search was launched, Arthur said.

"He was used to running around the stage, and he got out the back way," Arthur said.

The staff searched the whole school before calling a supervisor at parks department headquarters, who told them to call 911 immediately, Arthur said. The protocol and training for such situations are to search the immediate area and then call for help. Searching the entire school was a mistake, he said.

Detwiler was heading to her office on Snowden River Parkway and said it was "sheer luck" that she was driving down Route 100 at the time. She thinks Colin may have been trying to get to a playground near Route 100 before entering the highway.

Colin attends the summer camp program, which runs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., along with his 6-year-old brother, Logan. The boys were to remain at the school as part of an after-camp day care program until their mother could pick them up at 6 p.m.

Detwiler said she likes the program, and her boys have continued to attend, although Colin has a different companion after the previous staffer was reassigned. But she is angry that a senior county official didn't call her to explain until she complained to County Executive Ken Ulman's office.

Susan Potts, who supervises the 100 companions hired to care for campers with special needs, called several times during the two days following the incident, Detwiler said.

"The disappointment was that no one else from Recreation and Parks contacted me without my disappointment being made known," Detwiler said.

Detwiler said a program supervisor called last Wednesday and Arthur called Thursday. Arthur said he knew Potts was keeping in contact and concluded that was sufficient.

"I don't want this to happen to another family," Detwiler said. "This is a big deal."

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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