Does your church have an "elopement" plan for special needs kids who wander, run away, dart off or escape?
No, no, I'm not talking about people running off to get married. I'm talking about one expression of several disabilities: elopement. It would be described in lay terms as wandering, running away, escaping, or darting off. We have a couple of repeat offenders on Sunday mornings in our ministry.
Two of our most committed elopers at our church have Down syndrome, but this is a common behavior among kids with other diagnoses as well. In a survey of 800 parents of children with autism, findings indicated that about half of kids with autism wander. Additionally, children who have been adopted from hard places are also more likely to elope, especially those kids who have lived in a setting (like an orphanage or a child-led household) without much adult guidance and who might not understand the benefit of loving supervision.
Helpful note for parents:
Sometimes it helps to use disability-ese with church leaders. Saying "my kid wanders" doesn't always communicate the amount of supervision needed. Trying saying something like this instead: "In the world of special needs, there's this word 'elopement' that means a child might try to escape from the group and not understand the dangers, and elopement is something my son does sometimes. Here are a couple of things that can help keep him safe. [Insert suggestions.] Do you have any questions?"
Below I have a list of tips for working with individuals who elope in ministry settings:
- Talk with the parents/caregivers. If someone is eloping at church, it probably isn't the first time. What has worked in the past? What hasn't?
- Be proactive. It's always best to avoid elopement if you can! This extends to planning space well (such as arranging the room so that no one has any reason to be near the door) and planning class activity well (so that individuals are less likely to wander). Also...
- Pay attention, and try to figure out the cause(s). Behaviors don't just happen. If someone is eloping, odds are good that something is triggering that. Pay attention to what happens before the person tries to leave, including what other volunteers are doing, what classmates are doing, and how the individual is acting (frustrated? bored? overstimulated?). According to the research linked above, parents reported the following reasons for elopement: the child enjoys exploring (54%), heads for a favorite place (36%), escapes demands/anxieties (33%), pursues special topic (31%), and/or escapes sensory discomfort (27%). In a church setting, that means a child might elope to get to his/her parents, to explore the rest of the church, or to escape from a loud or busy class.
- Be careful not to reward elopement. I know that sounds a little odd; I mean, why would you want to reward that? But consider this: one of our kids who elopes tends to run away, giggling and looking back with a huge grin. If it weren't so unsafe, it would be cute. (Okay, okay, it's a little cute either way!) It takes a lot of self-control not to giggle with him, but every time he sees a helper laugh at that behavior, it reinforces it. Don't reinforce a behavior that you don't want to continue. Don't act like it's a game; treat it as a serious safety matter, because it is one.
- Plan transition times well. During our Kids LIFE classes (aka Sunday school), most preschool kids go to the playground. On special days, our elementary kids have small group time in their classes and then large group time in a bigger room. During the transitions from one place to another, I aim to position myself so that I can avoid a running situation with either of our kids who elopes.
- Make it more difficult to elope. In the past, we've used chimes on doors, baby gates in classes that usually wouldn't have them, and closed doors in classes that would usually have the door open. Also, we have arranged class environments so that no one in the class is by the door at any time other than pick up and drop off. Speaking of that...
- Have a plan for pick-up and drop-off times. Classes tend to be a little more chaotic at those times, as do church hallways. Exercise extra caution and prevention in those instances, and plan activities that keep the person who elopes away from the door. If one class's teachers are leaving while new teachers are arriving for the next ministry hour, it's easy to lose a little one and assume he or she has been picked up, so have a plan to prevent that!
- Ensure that you have enough volunteers. We know the parable of the 99 sheep that Jesus told, in which the man leaves his 99 sheep in search of the one that is missing. That is a wonderful parable and a good reminder of why we want to welcome these families, because otherwise we're sending that one sheep away from a church. However, it's not good or safe ministry practice to emulate it by leaving the rest of the class unattended while you go in search of the person who wandered off. Make sure the rest of the class will be fine with other volunteers while one pursues the wanderer (two if the individual might be in a more remote area, because it's never wise or safe practice to create a situation in which the volunteer will be alone with the child).
- Make sure other key staff and volunteers are aware of the best ways to respond when they see someone eloping and the best ways to prevent it. This might not be any different from what you would do for any other child. Or it might involve specific tips for the child or adult in question; for example, if she is fearful of strangers, it might be best for an unknown stranger to follow the child until a known helper arrives to approach her and bring her back to class.
And, to highlight why this is important, consider these points from the survey I mentioned earlier:
- More than one third of children who elope are never or rarely able to communicate their name, address, or phone number verbally or by writing/typing
- Two in three parents report their missing children had a "close call" with a traffic injury
- Wandering was ranked among the most stressful autism spectrum disorder (ASD) behaviors by 58% of parents of elopers
- 62% of families with children who elope were prevented from attending/enjoying activities outside the home due to fear of wandering
- 40% of parents had suffered sleep disruption due to fear of elopement
- Children with an ASD are eight times more likely to elope between the ages of seven and 10 than their typically-developing siblings
Please don't miss in these stats that parents of children who elope are often stressed out -- not sleeping, not participating in typical activities, possibly not coming to church at all. Find ways to show them love and, if possible, give them a break. Sunday morning can be that break, as can respite care (which is a topic covered extensively by our friends at Key Ministry, 99 Balloons, and Nathaniel's Hope).