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Handling a Child that “Bolts” in Church Programming

May 18, 2010

Question:  “A child in our children’s ministry programming frequently runs off, causing volunteers to chase him.  Recently a volunteer got hurt in the pursuit of this little guy.  Attempts to develop a dialogue with the parents have proven unsuccessful and we think the child may have a special needs diagnosis.  Help!”

We will answer this question over the course of the next five (5) posts.  I owe tremendous thanks to Dr. Cynthia Zierhut, Clinical Psychologist with the M.I.N.D. Institute and Director of Capital Christian Center’s Champions  Special Needs Ministry (Sacramento, CA) for gifting me with considerable time answering this question.  It is my sincere hope that this series of posts will be a most helpful resource to children’s ministries everywhere.

Post # 1 Answer to “Handling a Child that ‘Bolts’ or Runs Off”

Safety Is the Primary Issue

If the child’s running off or “bolting” is a recurring behavior and it is reasonable to expect that either the child or a volunteer could be hurt in the future, then the issue must be addressed.  Imagine the heart break of a church, let alone a family, if a child fell down stairs or ran away from the group and ultimately into harm’s way.  In the meantime volunteers may tire of the repeated compromise of their own safety.  From a purely secular standpoint, this type of situation can quickly breed a legal liability and public relations disaster for a church.  It is in everyone’s best interest to address safety compromising situations in every facet of a children’s ministry.

Create a tailored safety plan for the child

Cynthia Zierhut, Clinical Psyschologist with the M.I.N.D. Institute and Director of Capital Christian Center’s “Champions” special needs ministry shares:

Back when we started our special needs ministry, our church’s insurance carrier required us to anticipate problems such as this and develop appropriate policies to address safety issues.

Zierhut goes on to explain that once any children’s ministry participant exhibits safety compromising behavior (or if a parent candidly shares this is possible on the child’s intake form), Capital Christian Center requires the development of an enhanced safety plan for that specific child.  The church staff and the parents work together to develop the plan and within the guidelines of a standard form developed by the church.  The safety related policies are behavior driven and not diagnosis driven.  As a result, Capital Christian Center would utilize the enhanced safety plan for any children’s ministry participant regardless of having (or not having) a special needs label.

To see the form Capital Christian Center uses as an outline to craft a child’s enhanced safety plan, click here Emergency Plan. Please note that a church’s policies and procedures and their associated forms should always be developed by a church with their unique culture, insurance requirements and local laws in mind.  This attached form is intended to serve as an idea starter for other churches.  Please carefully make church policies and forms relevant to your church.

In the meantime, there is more homework to be done before completing the enhanced safety plan alongside the parents.  In the upcoming 4 posts, we will address the following topics related to this question:

For more on this topic, see Special Needs & Safety:  Elopement

Amy Fenton Lee

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  1. I have a child with special needs and love what you are doing, this is awesome, and something that really needs to be addressed! I have just scanned mostly your stuff so far. There is a discussion on facebook that my niece started about actually announcing a special needs ministry or program for your church, because there was a parent who said they just don’t go to churches unless it is posted that the church actually has a special needs ministry. Anyway, one of the post had mention there could be problems and why churches may stay away from such a ministry is because of legal issues, is there any information you have about if there is legal issues that come up (parents suing)?
    Thank you for all your help and time in this. Really appreciate it!
    God bless!
    Angie Beck

  2. Hi Angie –

    Thanks for your comment. I do address legal issues related to church accommodation in my new book, Leading a Special Needs Ministry: A Practical Guide to Including Children and Loving Families.

    Many churches do have a plan for special needs inclusion even though they may not have a named special needs ministry on their website. I would encourage a family impacted by special needs to call the church pastor that oversees the age group of the family member with special needs. Very often, the family will discover a church is willing to accommodate any unique needs or already has a plan in place or disability accommodation.

    There are a handful of cases where parents have pursued legal action against a church related to special needs accommodation. I have been called four or five times since I started this blog by a church that had a family pursuing legal action against them. One thing I’ve found is that the churches that call me already have a special needs ministry and are usually very special needs-friendly. The churches that don’t want anything to do with special needs accommodation don’t call me.

    I would recommend reading the new book because I went to great lengths to address all legal issues (in one way or another) that I had received calls on. Also, one of the contributing voices that advised me on every word in the book is a PhD in public policy on special education. She was a great help as we waded through legal issues in the book.

    I hope this helps!

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Addressing Aggressive or Unsafe Behavior « The Inclusive Church
  2. Conducting a Parent Meeting after Safety Compromising Behavior « The Inclusive Church
  3. Preparing for a Parent Meeting After a Child Exhibits Safety Compromising Behavior « The Inclusive Church
  4. Should the Church Suggest Special Needs Testing or Treatment for a Child? « The Inclusive Church
  5. Documenting and Notifying Parents of a Safety Compromising Event « The Inclusive Church
  6. Developing a Special Needs Ministry’s Goals & Mission « The Inclusive Church

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