Safe and Sound: Protecting your Child with Special Needs
By Rebecca LePage with Maggie Feltz
Turn on the TV or sign into Facebook, and you are likely to see a story about a missing child with special needs. The media seems to be saturated with them. Most, like the recent story of Nashaly Perez, thankfully end happily. However, those stories with tragic outcomes, like that of Avonte Oquendo, cause parents of children with special needs to feel absolute terror. All parents worry about their children’s safety, but parents of children with special needs experience a unique kind of anxiety when thinking about their children’s well-being, for our children don’t always fully comprehend when they are putting themselves in danger. Whether it is bolting behavior, a fascination with water, an inability to communicate or the need to escape an unpleasant sensory experience, our children’s behavior can make them uniquely vulnerable. And when our children are vulnerable, so are we.
So, how can we protect our children from harm, and ourselves from heartbreak? Obviously, there are no foolproof guarantees. But there are steps we can take to try to ensure that our children are safe both at home, and when venturing out in the world. And there are experts who can help us figure out what these steps are. We went to those experts, and here is what they had to say. We are sharing this information with you in the hopes that we can prevent another story on the evening news, and another plea on Facebook.
Safety at Home
Register your address with the local authorities. Police and fire departments rely on a computer assisted dispatch (“CAD”) system to disseminate vital information to first responders when there is an emergency. If you are the family of a child or adult with special needs, having your address flagged with key details about your family member could prove vital in the event of an emergency. Talk to your local police and fire departments about the possibility of setting up a registry in the CAD system. All of the first responders we spoke with said they appreciate having advanced warning when they are walking into a situation that could be unusually stressful or atypical, and as such, were very enthusiastic about the opportunity to set up an address registry for individuals with special needs.
Not all “babyproofing” experts are experts at childproofing. Making a home safe for a baby or toddler is one thing, making that same house safe for an older child or teenager is another. Though there are certainly children with special needs who have fine or gross motor delays that may limit their ability to overcome conventional babyproofing methods, there are just as many, if not more, who have age-appropriate strength and dexterity that make it easily feasible to overcome traditional baby gates, door bolts and cabinet locks. So, while the fantastic baby proofer you used to safeguard your children from harm when they were infants or toddlers may have been an appropriate choice then, he may not necessarily be the right choice to keep your child safe now. It is a little known fact that there are actually both a Certified Professional Childproofer, and a Certified Professional Babyproofer designation which recognizes those professionals who have met specific qualifications and criteria, and have proven through testing and client interaction that they possess the broad knowledge and experience required to successfully perform their job. The certification process is overseen by the Board of Certification for Professional Childproofers, and was developed by the International Association for Child Safety. Continuing education is a requirement to maintain certification, and in the past, the unique challenges presented when a home needs to be childproofed for an older child with special needs has been a topic covered in great detail. Before you hire someone to help safeguard your child in your own home, make sure that he possesses the qualifications that will allow him to do so successfully. Similarly, if you are a DIY type, make sure you consult an expert about the types of materials and instruments that should be used to help appropriately protect your child. Though well intentioned, many attempts at childproofing end up doing more harm than good as children can be severely injured while attempting to overcome inappropriate childproofing methods.
Maintain and care for all safety apparatuses in the home. In addition to being vigilant to the types of childproofing equipment you use in your home, you should be attentive to the necessary maintenance of fire and carbon monoxide alarms. Batteries should be replaced, and alarms should be tested bi-annually. Families of children and adults with special needs may also want to investigate the possibility of upgrading their alarm system so that alarm signals in the home can be personalized. Personalized systems allow caregivers to record their voice so that in the case of an emergency, a familiar voice will announce the need to vacate the home, not the voice of a stranger or a loud, and potentially frightening, siren.
Have an evacuation plan. All families should have an action plan in place for situations that would require a rapid evacuation, such as a fire or other emergency. All household members should be aware of this plan, and should have multiple opportunities to practice its execution. Tools that might be required in an emergency (e.g., fire extinguishers, fire ladders) should be placed somewhere readily accessible. In the case of an actual emergency, the evacuation plan should be put into action, and 911 should be called immediately. Attempts should not be made to put out a fire or gather personal belongings. Should any family require assistance in forming an executable evacuation plan, members of the local fire department should be contacted.
Safety at Large
Create a fact sheet for your child. Create a readily available fact sheet for your children that is updated at least every six months. With this resource in hand, you or another caregiver could immediately provide vital information to police and other first responders should your child wander away or go missing. While it may seem difficult to imagine, under times of extreme duress it is easy to forget vital details about your child. Having a pre-prepared spec sheet eliminates this possibility. Make sure your fact sheet includes the following:
- A current photograph, preferably taken head-on, that shows hair and eye color
- Current height and weight
- Any specific identifying information (e.g., birthmarks)
- Your child’s diagnosis, if it is relevant and you wish to include it
- Any information that might be pertinent to a first responder such as verbal ability, fear of loud noises, tools to soothe or calm the child, etc.
Consider the use of an identity bracelet. There has been a lot of discussion surrounding the use of identity bracelets or tags. Many parents fear that using such a labeling device will make their child vulnerable to predators who will attempt to take advantage of the information on the bracelet. The police officers we spoke with felt that, in the vast majority of cases, information on ID bracelets is used by good samaritans or first responders looking to assist a lost, agitated or disoriented child, and is thus a very useful tool when attempting to safeguard the well-being of your child. The identity bracelet or tag should be durable, and have your child’s name and contact information on it. You might want to consider adding your child’s diagnosis, particularly if your child has communication difficulties. This would allow a first responder to understand your child’s specific challenges and intervene accordingly. For example:
Charles “Charlie” Brown
If found, contact Mom at 123-555-1212
Autism Spectrum Disorder: limited speech
Get familiar with the latest technology. It seems that there are constantly new technological devices being made available that claim that they can guarantee your child’s safety. From the “Find My Phone” App, to GPS technology involving microchips, the array of products is becoming astounding and ever-evolving. Familiarize yourself with what’s available, and become a savvy and informed consumer. Realize that the claims being made are just that – claims. Do your research before making a purchase, and be aware that a new and improved version will probably be made available within months. So, before investing in a technological apparatus, discuss it with local law enforcement authorities and peers or friends who have actually used it. Find out about reliability, service interruptions, coverage area, battery lifespan and anything else that may impact utility.
Know about your town’s “Code Red”. Many towns now have fast and effective “Code Red” systems. In the event that a child disappears, police can use these systems to activate robocalls and flood certain areas, or even an entire town, with relevant information about the missing child. Though there are private services that purport to serve a similar service, town systems are, in general, more reliable and effective. Find out if your town currently has a “Code Red” system, and if not, talk to the local authorities about the possibility of putting one in place.
Act quickly. Should your child wander off, contact the local police immediately. In addition, you should be familiar with any other resources your community might have and use them! Many towns now have social media pages that are a great way to spread the word in the case of an emergency.
Obviously, our hope is that there is never any opportunity for you to put this information to use. However, as the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. And what could be more worthwhile than taking the steps necessary to try and ensure that no harm ever comes to your child?
Disclaimer: Rebecca LePage writes from the perspective of both a mother raising a child with special needs, and a physician who was worked with many special needs families. While she hopes her words will resonate with other parents in the special needs community and offer them some much needed support, she is in no way intending to offer medical advice through this venue.
Photo Credit: Moments by Andrea