Is There an Epidemic of Wandering Babies in Milwaukee?

Bus drivers seem to be rescuing wandering babies with alarming regularity. The cases are often much more than they seem.

That the stories are plentiful makes them no less shocking. They begin with a bus driver, just doing the job. On Saturday, Dec. 22, that driver was Irena Ivic. She spotted a small figure on the highway overpass as the bus approached, a little girl in a red onesie and diaper heading somewhere quickly in the 28-degree weather. She stopped the bus, stopped traffic, scooped up the toddler and carried her back to the bus, its arsenal of high-definition cameras capturing every move.

It’s powerful stuff, made moreso by its frequency. Through early March there had been nine such incidents in Milwaukee since 2017, when the Milwaukee County Transit System began honoring the drivers as part of a new MCTS Excellence program. The program, which has highlighted dozens of acts of bravery, kindness or just plain doing the right thing, began under the tenure of Brendan Conway, chief marketing and communications officer, who now works PR for We Energies’ parent company. Formerly a reporter at WISN-TV, Conway realized the bus system was sitting on a vast wealth of video footage, much of which could be turned to its advantage.

So what the heck is going on? The bus system can’t say definitively whether the stray-baby incidents are going up or down. The sample size is small: There was one award in 2016 (retroactively granted), five in 2017 and three in 2018. A statement from the Milwaukee Police Department, which is intimately involved in all of the cases, said the department hasn’t noticed an increase or decrease in recent times.

Police refer some cases to Child Protective Services, including the one last December, according to police records.

The girl’s father, Hasan Ali Abdul Kasim, wandered out of a nearby apartment to investigate the emergency lights about 15 minutes after the whole episode began. The 34-year old mother was missing and had a history of “mental illness,” the father said, and would disappear for days at a time. During one such period in September, Glendale police put out an alert saying the woman was missing: She’d run out of a doctor’s office and was possibly in danger.

Kasim speculated that the mother had left the apartment with the toddler, intending to take her to church, and had forgotten about her. St. Stanislaus Church, located directly across from the apartment and the I-94 overpass where the girl was found, has a 9 a.m. Mass on Saturdays.

The subsequent CPS investigation is confidential and could have led to the family’s two children being removed to foster care. It’s easy to see the parents as wildly neglectful; Ivic herself noted in a news conference, “I was so upset, and I couldn’t believe that somebody … left the child on the street.”

Bus Driver/Instructor Karen Martinez carries a boy she found to her bus; photo courtesy of the Milwaukee County Transit System

While it’s not particularly well-studied, many parents are painfully familiar with the phenomenon that advocates and researchers call elopement. In short, if a young child wants to escape a home or a parent’s care in public, there’s a good chance they’ll succeed at some point. “Kids are very resourceful and quick,” says Wendy Fournier, president of the National Autism Association. According to a 2012 study, almost 50 percent of children with autism spectrum disorder age 4 and older have a problem with wandering or elopement, about four times the rate of their non-autistic siblings. Prior to age 4, wandering is considered a normal behavior, however tiresome it may be for parents.

“[Non-autistic] kids do this,” says Fournier, “but they grow out of it relatively early.” For kids with autism, the desire to either leave a place (maybe home) or go somewhere (like a favorite pond) can go on and on and even increase during their teenage years. Sadly, a large number of fatal elopement cases end in drownings or traffic crashes. According to federal statistics, almost 2 percent of 8-year-olds have autism, and diagnosed cases continue to rise.

Most of the MCTS rescues have involved children younger than 5, and the presence of autism, or not, has been held as confidential. The National Autism Association counsels parents to tell their neighbors that they have children with autism or a tendency to roam. To catch would-be elopers at night, parents install door and window alarms, attach bells to exits and even sleep outside kids’ rooms. A company called AngelSense sells GPS trackers designed for children prone to elopement.

Fournier knows a mother of an autistic girl, 7-year-old Savannah, who skipped out with her brother while the mom was in the bathroom. Savannah drowned in a nearby pond. The boy survived only because his bike helmet acted as a flotation device.

It only took a few moments.

‘Rock Stars’ Behind the Wheel

One effect of the MCTS Excellence program has been to briefly catapult bus drivers into local stardom.

Karen Martinez, who’s also an MCTS instructor, was one of the first, and the Milwaukee Bucks honored her at a halftime in early 2018. She had picked up a young boy walking alone with no shoes, socks or coat, the only such incident in her nine-year career.

“We are like the eyes and the ears of the city,” she says. “We see everything.”

The Journal Sentinel rode along with Martinez in late 2018, and Gov. Tony Evers invited her to Madison in February to honor her (as a representative of MCTS drivers) during his state budget address.

“It’s truly a blessing to be able to help someone else,” she says, but adds that some of her riders have taken to referring to her as a “rock star.”

WTMJ-TV interviews Martinez about her heroism; photo courtesy of the Milwaukee County Transit System

“The Babies and the Buses” appears in the May 2019 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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Matt has written for Milwaukee Magazine since 2006, when he was a lowly intern. Since then, he’s held the posts of assistant news editor and, most recently, senior editor. He’s lived in South Carolina, Tennessee, Connecticut, Iowa, and Indiana but mostly in Wisconsin. He wants to do more fishing but has a hard time finding worms. For the magazine, Matt has written about city government, schools, religion, coffee roasters and Congress.