30 Days of Autism, Day 16: When Kids Elope

(Post by Abbi)

Usually the word “elope” conjures images of weddings in Vegas or on the beach somewhere… couples joining their lives together away from the busyness of life.

To parents of children who are autistic or have another disability that reduces their ability to understand danger, elopement means something very different. When Noah was about 4 or 5, we discovered that he knew how to open the door to the garage and press the garage door opener on the wall… when we suddenly realized he wasn’t in the house anymore. It was a terrifying few minutes of running down the street trying to find him. When we spotted him, he was near a busy road. Thankfully, when he saw us, he excitedly ran toward us.

He just didn’t understand that he had put himself in danger and scared us very badly. And as careful as we are, and as many locks as we put on doors and on the backyard fence, we are always on the alert. Thankfully, as he has gotten older, he knows where he’s supposed to go. He hasn’t tried to get out of the backyard in a couple of years, but we still watch him.

It’s important for churches to be a safe place for kids like Noah.

First, it’s an important ministry to the parents. If a church is set up to be a safe place that can prevent a child from eloping, then the parent(s) get a chance to rest and participate in worship.

Second, a child who is an elopement risk needs to be welcome in church too. And there are many ways to keep kids safe in this situation. Pea Ridge UMC already has one – there’s a door to the children’s wing that can be set up to only open with a code. The handle on this is also higher than a regular doorknob, so that smaller children can’t reach it.

If this isn’t possible for a church, then take a look at the doors in your nursery or children’s church room. If they are solid doors with no window, consider doing a half-door with a lock on the outside (where adults can reach over the half-door to unlock it) or a door with a window and a high lock (like a hook and eye lock). The window allows it to be compliant with Safe Sanctuaries but still keeps kids from opening the door to wander away.

There are also door alarms that make sounds when the door is opened. The alarm can be turned off when it’s time for parents to drop off or pick up kids, but be on when the door is supposed to remain closed to alert workers if a child opens the door.

If there isn’t a bathroom directly in the nursery or children’s room, make a plan for how to do bathroom breaks to reduce the risk of elopement.

Any nursery/Children’s Church workers or volunteers need to be aware of and alert to a child who may elope. It’s also important to develop a plan with your workers/volunteers, your pastor, and the families for if a child elopes while in the church’s care. Make sure the ushers or church greeters are aware that a child may elope.

Think about:

  1. Who needs to be alerted first?
  2. Who will make the decision about locking down the church (no one in or out)?
  3. How will searchers communicate with one another (walkie-talkies, cell phones)?
  4. When will 911 be called?
  5. Where are all the church exits and what hazardous areas (bodies of water, busy roads) are nearby? Do the church exits that aren’t supervised by greeters or ushers have exit alarms?
  6. Should you talk with local law enforcement ahead of time to let the know of the potential for elopement so you can make sure they are prepared in case of emergency?
  7. Modifying the plan as children grow and learn and (possibly) figure out how to get around safety measures.

Of utmost importance is to never shame the child or family about elopement. The child isn’t being bad, they just don’t understand the danger in running off. Being able to provide a safe and loving area and adults to supervise while families worship is an amazing ministry.

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