Dawn Dudley founded a group for girls with autism and their families this year to provide support and raise awareness.
About 5:15 p.m. Thursday, those needs hit home as the Durham mother got a call that her 5-year-old daughter, Trinity, had wandered away from an after-school program and was missing.
“It was the most traumatic and scary 40 minutes of my life,” Dudley said Friday.
Police safely returned her daughter to Hillandale Elementary School as Dudley pulled up to the school Thursday night. Someone had seen her near Guess Road, a busy thoroughfare, and called the police.
The girl had walked out of the school, past a parking lot and playground, through some woods and into a nearby neighborhood, her mother said.
Children with autism may fail to perceive danger the way typical children do, but Dudley said her concern goes beyond kids with special needs.
“This is important,” she said. “This is a community issue. It’s not just autism.”
Dudley met with Durham Public Schools leaders Friday. Superintendent Bert L’Homme said officials will visit the school and work with Principal Sandra Bates to investigate what happened.
“We are aware of special concerns regarding this student, and I have personally met with the parents to discuss how to make sure this never happens again, and how we can best meet the special needs of this child,” L’Homme said in a statement.
“The safety and security of our students is our most crucial responsibility,” he added. “Anything less than 100 percent won’t be tolerated. I apologize to the student and the family for what they went through with this incident.”
An estimated 1 in 58 children has autism, according to the Autism Society of North Carolina. Supporters will gather for the 16th annual Triangle Run/Walk for Autism at 9 a.m. Saturday in Moore Square in downtown Raleigh. Proceeds will fund the society’s programs, and Dudley’s group, My Circle of Girls, will be there.
Dudley, a public information specialist with Durham County government, said Trinity will sometimes stray when the family is out, like at a mall. But a quick call brings her back.
“Trinity has never walked away like that, ever,” she said of Thursday’s incident. “We never let her out of our sight.”
She said she immediately called her husband after the school called her, then dropped to her knees and started praying.
“If my daughter would have crossed Guess Road, maybe she would have made it to the other side, maybe she wouldn’t.”
Trinity doesn’t speak much or respond to questions like other children. Dudley said when police brought her back, she kept saying, “Are you OK? Are you OK?”
But Dudley thinks her daughter was probably repeating what others had asked when they found her.