HAMPTON ROADS, Va. – Two mothers with two similar stories of tragedy are pushing for change to better protect missing people with disabilities.
“Sometimes your mission and purpose finds you,” said mother and advocate Shawn Eure-Wilson. “Sometimes our mission and purpose are already written.”
Eure-Wilson’s mission began shortly after the devastating loss of her daughter Jamile Hill in October.
She pushed for new legislation to better protect missing adults with autism. The bill she fought for recently passed the House of Delegates and is expected to pass the Senate this week with the hopes of becoming enacted law by July 1, 2021.
“For so long, our friends and family members with disabilities have really been pushed to wayside,” said Eure-Wilson. “It’s long overdue.”
Jamile had autism and other developmental disabilities. When she didn’t come home one night, the Missing Child with Autism Alert did not go out. The cutoff age is 17. Jamile was 29.
Two days after her disappearance, Chesapeake police found her body. Her mom said she likely lost her balance, fell, and then drowned.
If passed, the new law would include everyone with autism regardless of age. Del. Cliff Hayes (D-Chesapeake) drafted and sponsored the legislation.
“We’re honoring the life of Jamile by making sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else,” Hayes said.
Hayes is a family friend. Introducing the bill held a deeper meaning for him.
“I attended the memorial service for Jamil. I was talking to Shawn, Jamile’s mother and she just wept, and said we have to do something about this,” said Hayes. “It just makes sense. For those familiar with autism spectrum disorder, we understand that it’s not something limited to children.”
Michelle Rocheleau also lost her daughter after she went missing.
Like Jamile, Ashley Cerasole was 29 years old. She had intellectual disabilities and mental illness but not autism.
Rocheleau said her daughter didn’t qualify for any missing person alert. Ashley’s body was found several weeks later in Gloucester. Police are still investigating how she died.
Rocheleau believes Hayes’ bill doesn’t go far enough.
“It’s not enough,” she said. “There are 61 million disabled adults in the United States. That’s 26% of the population…they’re disqualifying all these other disabled people based on their disability.”
Rocheleau and her mother Suzanne Berthier, Ashley’s grandmother, are pushing to broaden the current law to include people with all disabilities.
“The bulk of the population is being disregarded,” said Berthier. “There’s going to be deaths because of their waiting and not addressing things now.”
Hayes said a new bill to include all disabilities likely wouldn’t pass until next session, but he’s willing to work with the family to draft new legislation.
“It’s worth researching and finding out whatever can do to uphold what we were sworn to do and that’s to protect and serve the health, safety and welfare of our communities,” Hayes said.
Rocheleau and Berthier fear next year could be too late.
“This is not something you could wait on,” said Rocheleau. “They have to realize this could be their daughter, their son that’s missing.”
Meantime they’re joining Eure-Wilson’s fight to push for more inclusive alert program on a national level, ensuring both their daughter’s legacies endure.
“I’m going to continue to take that torch,” Eure-Wilson said. “My daughter is smiling down. She is smiling down on us and is like mom, you go, you go.”