CAPE CORAL, Fla. - A Cape Coral woman remains in jail after officers found her home in deplorable conditions and her daughters living inside. Both have autism and without intervention, autism advocates say the children faced an uncertain and troubling future.
Trash covered the floor of the home on Southeast 16th Place. Roaches and cats crawled around vomit and feces. Mold was seen growing on food in the refrigerator. It's a hazardous home for anyone. It's even more destructive for a child with autism.
Investigators say Lisa Velez kept her daughters - a child and an adult with autism - inside this home in those conditions. They say one was even locked in a bedroom. Velez now faces child neglect an animal abuse charges. Neighbors claim Velez often behaved erratically.
"It's a tragedy on multiple levels," said Armando Galella, Board President of Adonis Autism Assistance Foundation. "A child with autism, depending on where they are in the spectrum, have a very difficult time coping with situations that aren't patterned. To have that kind of chaos around them is only going to make their situation so much worse."
Galella said parents of children with autism may have difficulty coping with behavioral challenges leading to high divorce rates. The longer children who need calm, structured environments live in disarray, the more unstable their future. "If there's self-injurious behavior, injuries toward others, whether it's biting, slapping or head butting, head banging, this can be compounded," Galella said. "Without structure and without training and without help, many families do crumble."
The Department of Children and Families investigated Velez for two years. We asked why the children weren't immediately removed. Spokesperson Terri Durdaller said children thrive with their families and their goal is to keep families together. When someone reports a child in danger, they investigate the home, work with community partners to clean it and offer services to parents to help them get back on their feet. Taking children away, Durdaller said, is a "last resort."