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Special Needs & Safety: Elopement

January 17, 2013

Boy Running Off - Elopement post for 011713

Elopement is a legitimate concern for churches as we do a better job of including kids with special needs.  Many churches with established special needs ministries will share a story about a participant who ran away during church.  Those ministry leaders can laugh now about the pursuit that ensued and the happy ending.  But they’ll also recall their near heart attack when they discovered a student was missing.

Occasionally parents will disclose their child’s propensity to wander or bolt.  Candidly, it is a much easier situation for the church (and ultimately for the student) when parents are forthright about their child’s tendencies.  But oftentimes the church ministry team will discover only through experience that a particular participant is prone to elopement.  And as you might guess, those “surprise” moments aren’t the fondest of memories for the staff or volunteers!

The good news is that with appropriate supports, kids who run off can nearly always be successfully included in the church.  But their accommodation plan will require additional safety measures.  Dennis Debbaudt is a nationally recognized autism safety expert and the consultant behind www.autismriskmanagement.com.  There is no better resource when it comes to autism, safety, and law enforcement than Dennis Debbaudt.  With Dennis’ help, we’ve developed the following guidance to help churches.

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During the special needs intake process ask parents if the child is known to occasionally wander or run off.  Inquire if there is a catalyst to elopement.  Is the child trying to escape an activity?  Is he/she prone to running off in response to a change?  Perhaps a problematic situation could be recognized or prevented by the ministry team. Through voice tone and body language, convey to parents that the church intends to accept the child, inviting them to share honestly.  With the parents’ help, consider completing an emergency contact form from  www.autismriskmanagement.com.

Eliminate transitions and travel for a child prone to elopement.  If a student has in the recent past run off during church(or the parents have informed the church of this possibility), then their schedule and environment may need to change.  Risk increases with transitions such as moving between rooms.  It is best to eliminate any need for the participant to travel at any point during their church experience.  For example, walking down a hall (even to the bathroom) may increase the odds of an elopement situation.

Provide a confined and secure environment for participants prone to running off.  Designate a learning environment that has at least two sets of doors (and ideally three) between the inside of the class and outside the building.  For example, the child might be placed in a learning environment inside a special needs ministry suite.  So when the family arrives at church, they would enter through exterior doors, walk through a hall or open area before entering a second set of lockable doors and into a suite.  Once inside the suite, the child would then go through another door or half-door to their classroom.  So for a child to leave the building, they would have to escape three sets of doors.  If fire code requires direct access to the outside, then discuss safety options with your building inspector and fire marshall.  Undoubtedly fire alarms would be installed on such doors.

Inside the secure environment, provide a handicap accessible bathroom.  If the nearest bathroom requires travel away from the secure area, a plan should be developed for “pit stops”.  Decide who will accompany the individual to the bathroom or anywhere else on campus.  See this earlier post about bathroom & toileting policies

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Install a sound alarm on the classroom doors.  The special needs classroom at Stonebriar Community Church in Frisco, Texas has a door alarm (shown above).  This way, when the alarm switch is turned on and the special needs classroom door opens, a sound goes off.  The sound prompts class leaders to see who may exiting (or entering) the door.

Train the security team and church greeters to recognize potential bolters.   A church may want to post security at key spots outside buildings as well.  For high risk situations, security may be advised when a particular student arrives on campus so to be available and nearby in case help is needed.  However, be sure to avoid over or under reaction.

Develop an elopement response plan.  Involve the church’s security team, facilities personnel, and special needs ministry volunteers in this plan.  Who should be notified first?  Who will make a decision about a potential lockdown?  How will the lockdown be initiated?  What means of communication will be used? (e.g. pager, cell phone, walkie-talkie, etc)  Who will place the 911 call on behalf of the church?  Identify all nearby water sources and other hazardous locations in close proximity to the church building (e.g. busy intersection).  Consider establishing a code word for an active elopement situation when using radio, phone or text communication. Train the team for appropriate communications while chasing or upon discovering the student:

  • Keep verbal communications simple and nuance free.  Avoid slang, jokes, colloquialisms and figures of speech.
  • Consider the use of picture boards to enhance communication (see attached PDF provided by Dennis Debbaudt): AutismCommunicationCards

Invite local law enforcement to be part of the response plan.  With parents’ permission, provide key information to police in advance.  When law enforcement officers know how to appropriately respond, especially with the nuances of a particular individual in mind, the odds of a happy ending increase dramatically.

Monitor and modify the accommodation plan for identified students.  Many individuals will outgrow their tendencies or learn new skills, reducing their risk of elopement.  Work with parents to remind and reinforce better communication choices, helping a child find safer ways to relay their needs and desires.   Over time the need for increased safety measures may diminish.  Take small steps to see if the student can re-engage in less secure, typical ministry settings.

~ Amy Fenton Lee & Dennis Debbaudt

Debbaudt-training-photoDennis Debbaudt is the proud father of Brad, a young man who has autism. A professional investigator and law enforcement trainer, Dennis has authored or co-authored over 30 articles and books since 1993 including Autism, Advocates and Law Enforcement Professionals: Recognizing and Reducing Risk Situations for People with Autism Spectrum Disorders, articles for the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin (April, 2001), and many other law enforcement and autism publications.

For more information on Dennis Debbaudt or Autism Risk & Safety Management, see www.autismriskmanagement.com.  (From AFL:  This website is a fantastic resource and full of example forms!)

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5 Comments
  1. Affenton permalink

    This is a great post! I am making certain our Safety Team has a copy of this.

    Alta Faye Fenton

  2. Katie Garvert permalink

    Love this post. Sent the link to our local police and fire fighters since we had a situation with one of our adults with autism.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Handling a Child that “Bolts” in Church Programming « The Inclusive Church
  2. Creating a Special Needs Ministry Budget | The Inclusive Church
  3. Special Needs Ministry: An Interview with Meaghan Wall | The Inclusive Church

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