Death of autistic 7-year-old inspires push for new Ga. law

Hannah Ross

Hannah Ross, an autistic 7-year-old girl, was found in the bottom of a lake at Fort Gordon on Sunday. (WRDW-TV / April 30, 2012)

News 12 at 6 o' clock / Friday, May 4, 2012

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- A 7-year-old girl with autism wandered off from her family's home and drowned Sunday. Now, her tragedy has sparked a movement for a new state law.

Amy Bachman-Cliett is a behavioral specialist and autism expert from Augusta. After the drowning of 7-year-old Hannah Ross, she is pushing for a new alert system in Georgia.

The system would be similar to the Amber Alert for kidnapped children, but this system would send an alert when a child with a disability goes missing.

She says Georgia has needed an alert system like this for years, but the recent tragedy so close to home made her realize she had to do something fast.

"It's all about saving one kid. If I save one kid, I feel like I've done my job," Cliett said.

So she is putting her plan into action. She's trying to pass a new law that will be called "Hannah's Alert."

"Unfortunately, this is an all-too-common event that occurs," Cliett said.

Divers found Hannah's body in a lake behind her home after nearly a 24-hour search Sunday after she wandered from her home on Fort Gordon.

"There are several of us in the community who are familiar with autism and related disabilities and the special circumstances that brings, and we didn't know about this until the next day," Cliett said.

She feels that if an alert was sent, she could have been there in five minutes.

"We can get the community moving much faster to be on the lookout for the child because in this particular situation people didn't know until the next day. And unfortunately, as it turns out, that was too late," Cliett said.

Cliett says roughly half of children diagnosed with autism engage in what they call elopement or wandering behaviors.

Hannah's story -- and tragic end -- hits way too close to home for many parents of autistic children.

Sylvia Selitto has three children, two of whom are autistic. Hearing of Hannah's tragedy reminds her of the many times her own son has run away. One time, they even had to call the police to help search for him.

"Both doors were locked. I think I was cleaning the kitchen, and he figured out how to unlock the door and he just ran out," she said.

And parents like Selitto are hoping this law passes, giving parents of children with disabilities a little more peace of mind.

"We could get them found quicker before they get scared and potentially go into harm's way," she said.

Cliett has written a first draft of the bill. We spoke with a couple of state lawmakers who are really excited about helping with the project. They're hoping to have the bill ready to go by the start of the state legislative session in January.


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