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Stop the Abuse

Pat Verbal

A case in Wylie, Texas, puts a face on abuse suffered by children with special needs. Gerren Isgrigg, a 6-year-old boy with disabilities, was found dead on April 15, 2010, in a wooded area. He weighed only 28 pounds. A shocked community watched as police arrested the boy's grandmother for murder.

Gerren's life story is a tale of the stress special needs puts on a family. When the child's parents had divorced three years earlier, his mother left Gerren with his grandmother and never returned. Overwhelmed and fearing that no one would or could help, she apparently snapped.

The sad truth is that families in your community may be barely coping with the stress of raising a child with special needs. Abuse among children with disabilities may be as high as 70 percent, according to the National Research Council. Another estimate says one in three special-education students is mistreated.

As your church prays for and welcomes these families, you may save a life at risk. Here's what you can do.

Welcome special needs families. Make every program in your ministry accessible to children in terms of proper equipment and a trained buddy for each child. Provide childcare for children with special needs during ministry activities.

Offer training and support groups. Parents and care givers often feel alone in the burden they carry. In Wylie, Texas, after Gerren's death, a concerned citizen organized a candlelight vigil and an online group for the boy, saying she wished the family had known how much people cared. Don't wait until tragedy strikes.

Educate your church and community. Inform your congregation about legislation that could impact families with special needs. Write editorials for your local newspaper to share your views on just treatment for children with special needs. Ask your pastor to speak about the needs of families affected by disabilities. And train volunteers about child-abuse signs and reporting procedures.

Provide respite. Plan community events such as baseball games or picnics for families affected by disabilities. Also, provide childcare for children with special needs periodically so families can have a break from the 24/7 care.

Author Charles Colson says, "Christians, living up to the highest ideals of their faith, have always defended the weak and vulnerable and eagerly worked to protect and strengthen vital institutions of civil society, beginning with the family." This is your church's work.

Pat Verbal is the co-author of Special Needs-Special Ministry (Group) and manager of curriculum development at the Christian Institute on Disability (joniandfriends.org).

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