When a child snaps and freefall begins, you can learn a lot from the ensuing scramble. Arturo, an eight year old, showed that he had snapped last week when he punched, and bit a couple of child crisis staff, scrawled swear words on the office wall, and kicked at the air to scare the rest of us away. During it all, I witnessed more than a child in crisis.

I also saw how guidelines and procedures fail to chart how we should behave when we slip outside of the situations the guidebooks’ authors anticipated. For example, at one point, a frustrated social worker pulled the crisis manual from the shelf to see what she must have missed. She set it down in seconds. We were off script. Two staff restrained the boy and at that point we went somewhere beyond the warning that says, above all else, do not touch.

For those for whom touch is approved, they have received unique certification. Even with these unique credentials, the rule is still to touch only when all else has been tried. The nature of how touch occurs is described, regulated and sometimes inadequate. When Arturo fled, staff had been using approved holds. Still, he slipped free and ducked down hallways to hide.

Police officers arrived, found him in a custodial closet, and coaxed him back to my office. We stood together, a room full of experts baffled by how to contain the uncontainable. One large social worker cornered Arturo behind a desk while case workers and staff worked the phones seeking clearances and guidance from their superiors. They got voicemail. One officer relented and said let’s pick him up. They lifted Arturo, one on each arm, dragged him across the street and stuffed him, kicking and swinging, into the back of a squad car.

One of my bosses once described events beyond the limits of our systems – untouchable places where irregular circumstances wait. This same boss told us that a requisite for leadership was a willingness to step into that untouchable, unchartered place to foster the connections that systems refuse to. He outlined case after case where rulebooks could only take you so far, and then you had to move ahead without the support of precedent, a clear map, or an encouraging word.

His words brought to mind a time very different moment, when a former President stood between two quarreling Middle East leaders during negotiations, taking one man’s hand and joining it with the other in a hand shake. News lines buzzed with this president’s audacious act. He had stepped over a line in introducing touch. No script, but instead, powerful impact and for a moment, a bit of hope.

We earned our broken and battered retreat to touchless interventions through many abuses.  Melt downs and collapses are an unpredictable expectation, and sometimes all we can do is to stand by, helpless. That we might relearn now to listen to the body, and how to re-engage the power of simple contact – Do we have to make it so challenging for reliable wisdom to work its magic? As the pace of free fall quickens we may want to revisit what we thought we knew.


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