Mike Dobes has overseen the Church Relationships Department of Joni and Friends for the past three and a half years. His department provides training and materials to local churches all over the country, equipping them to serve individuals with disabilities in a ministry setting.
We spoke with Mike about how churches can best begin (or improve) their ministries to individuals with special needs. With reports of sexual abuse in churches toward special needs individuals on the rise, Dobes took the time to tell us how to create ministry work that’s both inviting—and safe.
What are the risks of special needs individuals being placed in the care of volunteers?
One risk is that the child's needs won't fit within the framework of what already exists. A young boy with autism might have a few issues with behavior or personality that are more challenging, but he’s not going to need a separate room or an entire risk management plan for just him.
With more severe needs, it’s good to be aware of the related issues. One of the behaviors that comes with severe autism is called “eloping”—they just want to run away. You don’t want a parent to come get their child and to have to say, “We have no idea where your child is.”
And if there’s an individual with high medical needs or restroom needs, have the parents assist. The parents should be changing their teen’s diaper, not a volunteer. If something is that severe, have the conversation with the parents.
But remember, it’s important to communicate to parents that you’re on their side. Communicate that you want to partner with them, and allow them to sit in church without being worried that their child isn’t being cared for.
Do you have any advice specifically in preventing sexual abuse of special needs individuals?
I would like to encourage churches not to lower their guards in order to gain volunteers. Everyone who desires to work and volunteer in the ministry should fill out an application, turn in references, and allow a background check.
I was in children’s ministry for nine and a half years—I know there’s a constant tension of, “We don’t’ have enough teachers!” And you think, “Well there’s a warm body in the back row, maybe they’ll come substitute.”
But you can’t do that. It’s worth the due diligence. Even if it takes three months to do all of the work that it takes, keep systems in place.
And never be alone with a child. If you have one person assigned to a kid, it’s in the context of the classroom. If they’re prone to running away, hold their hand, but you should never be alone. If a child has to go to the restroom, two people have to go. If there’s an usher or security team, they need to be trained on special needs and signs of abuse, and the potential for autistic children to elope. They need their eyes on it as well. The church needs to have that due diligence and be vigilant with it.
Also, be aware that if someone has a disability that’s caused them to be nonverbal, it’s that much harder for them to communicate if something has happened, which makes them more likely to be a victim. A typical kid could potentially walk into a room and report what happened, but there’s an extra vulnerability with special needs.
At volunteer trainings, continue to talk about vulnerability and never being alone with a child. If something does happen, report it to the proper authorities immediately. So much that happens in churches isn’t reported until much later, and that’s when victims start to add up. And that’s on church leadership. That’s not on mom or dad, or on the person with the disability. That’s on church leadership ensuring the systems are in place to provide safe, vetted volunteers who are there for the right reasons. And if you get any hint that someone shouldn’t be volunteering, exercise extreme caution. But I know there’s that tension with churches because all too often they’re desperate for volunteers.
Ashley Grace Emmert is a writer and editor who lives in the suburbs of Chicago with her sweet Southern husband and their small scrappy dogs. Find her at ashleygraceemmert.com or on Twitter at @ashgemmert.
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