The Wandering Child

Many parents of children with developmental delays or intellectual disabilities, such as Autism or Down Syndrome, go to great lengths to keep their children safe from wandering off or darting away from home.  The official term for when a child takes off like that is “elopement”. Homes have been equiped with all kinds of additional locking systems on doors, windows, gates, fences, as well as motion detectors and sensor devices to keep children in and danger out. In extreme cases, parents have notified local police stations of the propensity of their children to wander, and there are even personal tracking devices that attach to children’s wrists or ankles. The tracking devices assist local officials in finding children when the have eloped. School systems housing children that are known as flight risk have also taken precautions to keep the children as safe as possible.

But when a wandering child appears in our church and Sunday school programs, what systems have we put into place? There is no worse feeling for a children’s ministry worker to take a head count and realize he or she has fewer children than should be there and one might be missing. To where and when they disappeared you have no idea. Listed below are some steps to help ensure the safety of all children, including those that wander:

  • Consider additional classroom door locks, as long as they are not a fire marshall violation.
  • Keeps doors shut, if possible, or make use of baby gates.
  • Install inexpensive door alarms or motion sensors.
  • Create a volunteer position known as “the gatekeeper”, whose job is to watch the door.
  • Pair up wandering children with buddies.
  • Create visual reminders to put on doors, such as a bright red stop sign.
  • Create social stories to read or tell children regarding staying in the classrooms and not taking off.
  • Have in place a communication system to notify other church staff of eloped children, e.g. walkie-talkies, cell phones, pager systems,  and LCD displays.
  • Always have parents’ contact information, and know their whereabouts.
  • Be cognizant of high-risk times during programming or classes when wandering off may be easy, e.g. travel time between rooms or bathroom breaks.
  • Develop a reward system so that a child is praised and rewarded when he or she does not wander.

Most children with disabilities who wander off do so with a purpose. There is a place they would rather be than in class. In Access, we have one child who has always been found in our gym area the few times he has gotten away, and another child whose mother told us if he goes missing to make sure we check any place with a copy machine, as he is fascinated by them. Other children wander or run off because they are impulsive and have no understanding of danger or consequences in doing so. No matter what the reason, once you realize you have a wanderer in your classroom, it is time to be proactive and create a plan to keep the child safe as well as for what to do if he or she does go missing. Above all things, pray like crazy for the safety of those precious children in your care.

One Comment

  1. Marianne Estornell wrote on May 25, 2011 at 12:58 am

    We have had great success pairing our two “elopers” with some of our youth. They have formed wonderful relationships and the youth feel more connected.


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