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Establishing a strong children’s ministry foundation 

 

 

One of the first ministries developed in a new church is the children’s ministry and one of the greatest assets to the new ministry is adult volunteers. Whether nursery workers or youth group chaperones, these volunteers provide the care, mentoring, and valuable manpower that is needed to help a ministry thrive. Oftentimes, an “all hands on deck” approach is taken in recruiting volunteers simply because it takes a lot of people to care for the children in your church. However, in the quest to fill much needed volunteer spots, many churches decide not to screen or train volunteers, fearing that doing so may deter persons from volunteering. This should not be the case. Churches need to take care in choosing who will have access to the most important people in the building: the children.

 

One of the ways churches can manage access to its children is by requiring criminal background checks on all persons­—volunteers and employees—who will work with children and youth. No church should be without these checks; they are an effective tool for determining whether a potential employee or volunteer is safe to care for children. The justification for background checks is compelling. For example, during the 1980s and 1990s, one particular national youth organization chose not to perform background checks. Consequently, the organization admitted over 200 men who had previously been arrested or convicted of sex crimes as volunteers in the organization’s youth programs. Although the organization slowly began requiring criminal background checks for new volunteers, it was not until 2008 that the organization ultimately ordered background checks for all volunteers. Hundreds of cases of child molestation occurred during the interim. As a result, young lives were destroyed by abuse and a once effective nonprofit is now struggling to overcome the legal challenges, as well as shame from its failure to protect youth in its care.

 

This should be a warning for all churches and ministries. Just because your church is a religious organization does not mean it is insulated from those who may abuse children. Unfortunately, there are hundreds of cases of abuse arising from children’s and youth ministries. But churches are not helpless! A church should implement systems that will screen all employees and volunteers to prevent the opportunity for abuse as well as train employees and volunteers to spot and report suspected misconduct. Not only will proper screening and training set safeguards around the children and youth, it will also protect the church from engaging in the negligent hiring of employees and negligent supervision of volunteers. Negligent hiring is when the employer knew or should have known key background facts of the employee that indicated a dangerous background. Negligent supervision of volunteers is when volunteers are improperly supervised, allowing injury to occur. These common legal claims arise when abuse occurs within the church. Careful hiring and supervision will help prevent even the opportunity for abuse.

 

Many churches have buckled under court judgments for failing to show they did enough to protect children in their care. In response, I developed The Guardian System. This program gives ministries confidence that they’re demonstrating the care needed to protect children. The foundation of The Guardian System is a four-step tool known as S.T.O.P.: Screen, Train, Operate, and P.L.A.N.

 

Often, churches “trust and believe” when they should “trust but verify.” We need to remember that Jesus said to “be shrewd as serpents …” By implementing S.T.O.P. you will wisely improve the protection of children in your care. Our legal system demands you show due care when giving access to children, and children deserve that care. By following these four steps you will enable your ministry to minimize opportunities for evil.

 

 

S – Screen

 

A properly designed screening process should be the gatekeeper for entering children’s ministry. Most importantly, a screening process will help uncover those with evil intentions. It is difficult to understand how someone who wants to work with children could have evil intentions. But case after case has shown that for many abusers, moving to a job or volunteer opportunity with access to children is often intentional. A properly developed screening process will help weed out wolves in sheep’s clothing.

 

A screening should consist of several steps and should not only consist of a face-to-face interview. Many times, abusers are very likeable people and it may be difficult to believe they could harm anyone. The first step in the screening process is creating job descriptions, even for volunteers. Every position involving direct contact with children should have a written description of duties and responsibilities. A good job description helps you control the contact employees and volunteers have with children. You set the boundaries for a job, not the employee or the volunteer.

 

Along with a thorough job description, a written application should begin the screening process. A carefully crafted application allows the church to obtain important information from the applicant, which you can verify through outside sources. Finally, do not let employees or volunteers begin their work prior to your receipt of the completed application. Make it clear that until you have a completed application, applicants are not allowed to work or volunteer.

 

You should also classify employees and volunteers according to their contact with children. For example, persons who have direct contact with children or youth and may be called upon for events such as overnight excursions need to be supervised at a higher level than volunteers who may only work in the parking lot or directing traffic. Classifying volunteers will help you allocate supervision and training.

 

Finally, face-to-face interviews, obtaining references and performing criminal background checks are the very last, but arguably most important parts of your screening process. An interview will help you have a “gut check” about the applicant: listen to your gut check. If you perform a reference check or criminal background check that comes back positive for violent or sexual crimes, the applicant should be immediately disqualified from primary contact with children. While an applicant’s life may have changed since they committed crimes, it does not mean you have to place the applicant in primary contact with children. Remember to screen existing employees and volunteers if you are just beginning to perform background checks. No one should be excused due to seniority.

 

 

T – Train

 

Training for all employees and volunteers should occur before they have an opportunity to interact with children. Anyone in your ministry who has not received training should do so immediately. Training should cover: 1) Recognition of a child abuser, 2) Identifying victims of abuse, 3) Appropriate interaction with children, including physical touch and discipline, 4) Verification of identity for child pick-up, 5) How to report abuse, and 6) General safety, such as CPR.

 

Education is a significant step in protecting children from abuse. Training equips your employees and volunteers with the tools they need to recognize, report, and prevent child abuse.

 

 

O – Operate

 

Screening and training are not effective unless you operate your ministry so you know what is happening on your premises. Instilling good practices will prevent negligent supervision and let your staff, volunteers and parents know that you have safety at the top of your priorities.

 

One important practice that will prevent a negligent supervision claim is the “Two-Deep Rule.” The Two-Deep Rule means that a child is with at least two, unmarried and unrelated adults at all times. A child should never be alone with one adult or even two adults who are married or related to one another. By ensuring two unrelated adults are always with children, you will deter misconduct; and if there is a false allegation of abuse, you have a witness who can verify nothing improper occurred.

 

 

P – P.L.A.N.

 

Should there be reported abuse, your response is critical. Immediately, contact your church’s attorney. After contacting the church’s attorney you will need to respond to the incident. Each state has specific reporting laws that carry criminal consequences for noncompliance. To help you respond, I have created a second acronym, PLAN: Prevent, Listen, Assemble, and Notify. These steps will help you respond in an ethical, professional and effective manner.

 

First, PREVENT interaction. Regardless of how baseless you believe the claim is, you must prevent any further contact between the alleged wrongdoer and any children.

 

Second, LISTEN to the report. Once again, regardless of how unlikely the claim may be, you must never ignore a report of child abuse. You should never shuffle the alleged offender to another staff or volunteer position. Always investigate the matter thoroughly.

 

ASSEMBLE a response team. This response team should be made up of leadership in the church and your church’s attorney. The role of the team is to perform internal fact-finding.

 

Finally, you must follow your NOTIFICATION procedures. Any communication to the church or even a meeting with parents should be carefully planned and include the church’s attorney. If the abuse involved the victim’s parents, communication with them is not appropriate. Instead, you should consult the church’s attorney.

 

When a church is faced with allegations of abuse, the use of S.T.O.P. will allow you to confidently know everything within your power was done to protect the children in your care. This will go a long way with your congregation, the public and even a jury.

 

Cost is the most common argument against any program, such as The Guardian System and tools such as S.T.O.P. However, no price can be put on the safety of the children in your care, and no court will see budget restraints as a defense to negligent hiring or negligent supervision.

 

 

 

 

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About the Author

David Middlebrook is a founding shareholder of Anthony & Middlebrook, P.C., a nationally recognized nonprofit boutique law firm located in Dallas/Ft. Worth. The Church Law Group is a practice section of the firm that works exclusively with churches, ministries, faith-based organizations and clergy, both domestic and international. churchlawgroup.com