Minnesota Church Files Restraining Order Against Autistic Boy

May 20, 2008 by

Have you seen this news story? The Church of St. Joseph, a Catholic church in Bertha, Minn., has filed a restraining order against 13-year-old Adam Race, a severely autistic boy, in an attempt to keep Race from disrupting services and endangering parishioners. The mother was threatened with arrest if she went to church and the whole story has prompted a debate about how to accommodate people with autism.

The story has made the national news circuit and has quickly turned into a ‘he said/she said’ battle, with the church giving its story of the 6-foot-tall, 225-pound Race being disruptive, sexually aggressive, nearly knocking over parishioners and needing to be restrained–tied down and sat on by his parents. The parents, meanwhile, give a different view of things, explaining soothing techniques they use and pointing out that the church hasn’t responded to requests to help the situation.

However you see this story, whether the parents need to be more respectful of others in church and find a way to keep Adam from being a danger to others or the church needs to be more understanding of autism and come up with a solution that isn’t court ordered, I think the whole thing is kind of silly.

Thanks to our media’s news cycle that focuses on repetition rather than detail, and the fact that St. Joseph’s has no web presence that I can find, it’s hard to know what’s true and what’s being sensationalized. But here are a few things that are true:

Work It Out
If you’ve got a conflict in your church, work it out. Taking it to court doesn’t go well for anybody (I think that’s in the Bible somewhere). Find a way to solve the issue without turning it into a public spectacle. Because it will be a public spectacle.

Don’t Send the Wrong Message
Using a court order to keep people from your church is generally a bad idea. You want people to come to your church, you shouldn’t be putting your efforts into barring them. Aside from the complications this causes for the initial conflict, using a court order on your own church member sends the worst possible message.

Be Full of Love
If you do get dragged into a mess like this, you better hope you covered your butt with lots and lots of love. The only way a church can come out of a situation like this without looking like jerks is if it’s obvious to anyone that the church bent over backwards to resolve the situation. A visit from the pastor followed by a letter asking someone not to come to church doesn’t seem like you tried everything you could. Love, love and love some more. I think that’s what your sermon was about, right?

Tell Your Story
The best way to deal with a public relations nightmare like this is to tell the whole truth, honestly and sincerely. St. Joseph’s needs to tell their story. Hopefully it’s a good story to tell (see points above), or else it won’t help you much. But get out there and explain yourself. Dispel the image of your church the media is currently painting. And you better show a ton of love, since that’s currently lacking in your public perception.

These are the kind of stories that make churches look bad. Sometimes they’re hard to avoid, but it’s how we react that can determine whether we project an image of love and acceptance, or misunderstanding and reaction.

Post By:

Kevin D. Hendricks

When Kevin isn't busy as the editor of Church Marketing Sucks, he runs his own writing and editing company, Monkey Outta Nowhere. Kevin has been blogging since 1998, runs the hyperlocal site West St. Paul Reader, and has published several books, including 137 Books in One Year: How to Fall in Love With Reading, The Stephanies and all of our church communication books.
Read more posts by | Want to write for us?

10 Responses to “Minnesota Church Files Restraining Order Against Autistic Boy”

  • geoffreybrown
    May 20, 2008

    Your closing line “These are the kind of stories that make churches look bad” really resonates with me, here in New England where going to church is considered pretty much a non-conformist act. And, maybe the denomination where something like this occurs matters elsewhere in the country, but to a lot of people “up here” this will just be seen as another example of churches behaving badly.
    I’m looking forward to reading more comments on this article.

     | Permalink
  • Nathan Horton
    May 20, 2008

    Our church has started a Special Needs class in the last year, and it has been a huge success. Parents want to know that someone cares as much about their child as they do, and they need a break to be able to worship, too.
    Another church in our area just built a new building, and built a special room just for the one autistic boy in their congregation, even naming it after him.
    If the church doesn’t love people with special needs, who will?

     | Permalink
  • Sara
    May 21, 2008

    The church has offered to make accommodations but the family has refused. Doesn’t the family have a responsibility to be reasonable and work with the church to find a workable solution instead of hanging on to a “my way only” mentality?

     | Permalink
  • Charlotte
    May 21, 2008

    With autism growing around the USA, as well as a number of other special needs, is the way we DO church needing to change, too? Are sermons really effective tools? Would it perhaps be better to create a hands-on church experience?

     | Permalink
  • Deb
    May 24, 2008

    While the church has stated that they have offered accommodations to the family, they have been very vague about those accommodations. I would suspect it’s because they know that they were pretty lousy accommodations, if you could even call them attempts at accommodations. According to the family, the accommodations were basically telling them to have Adam sit in the basement and watch a video feed. The one accommodation that the priest agreed to, he forgot to do (let them leave early) and that caused several of the “incidents” that he reported — and greatly exaggerated.
    Jesus called us to love unconditionally, and love and exclusion can’t happen together. It’s a really sad thing that the church in America has become so seduced by comfort and selfishness that there isn’t an even louder uproar about this.

     | Permalink
  • Jerry
    May 24, 2008

    Our church has an entire program for special needs children including autistic children. Each child has a ‘buddy’ (volunteer) for the entire year (many buddies even stick with the same child many years) who goes everywhere the child goes each Sunday. They have their own class and room designed to meet their specialized needs. The buddy brings them to the youth worship service and then takes them to class. It is an incredible program. Read more about it at http://www.whatisgrace.org
    We have heard many stories from the parents of these children regarding being asked to leave other churches and feeling like there were no churches willing to provide the needed environment that would enable them to attend and be active in a church. SAD!
    Lawsuits among Christians is wrong… a church putting a restraining order on an autistic child is {__}! I can’t even think of a word that adequately describes just how wrong that is.

     | Permalink
    May 25, 2008

    I support the child with autism. The church should support him and the family. There are so many children with this disorder as I am one of those parents with a severly diabled child with autism. I hope Adam wins!! He has a soul to. If Adam has been going there since childhood everyone should be aware of his needs. As a nurse, who works with the elderly with Dementia- many have accidents and can be inappropriate. Look closely no one is perfect.

     | Permalink
  • Jonathan
    May 30, 2008

    I totally support the boy. I work for a large Children’s ministry, and we wholeheartedly support parents and will work with parents and put the special needs child into a class and having a team member just for the child. This church needs to re-examine how it does things and it should focus more on the families. This is definately what makes churches look bad.

     | Permalink
  • Don
    June 2, 2008

    I am the parent of a 12 year old boy with high functioning autism (aspergers).Doesn’t the church understand the burden aready placed on this family, they already face a number of hurdles everyday,so lets add another one. What about loving all Gods creatures. Sounds like the church has become this young mans judge and jury. Are the looking at this childs size, and feel intiminated by him, what if this child weighed 70 pounds, is his size part of the equation. Talk about a church behaving badly

     | Permalink
  • David
    June 9, 2008

    I work in our church’s kids program and help integrate our special needs kids into mainstream kids activities. Even though we have a strong special needs program that emphasizes teaching the gospel and love, we see it as a vital part of our ministry to help all children join together as the body of Christ as much as possible. We pray and we apply the “buddy system” when working with our special kids. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Even when it doesn’t work, we don’t give up on trying to introduce our special kids into the body as a whole. Perhaps one day we’ll run into a child that simply can’t be part of the whole, but I hope and pray that day doesn’t come.
    When we work with special needs kids we also have to realize that the parents are a vital part of this ministry. The aspirations for their child should not be taken lightly. Listen to them, love them, and work with them to help integrate their child into the overall kids program.

     | Permalink

Public Relations