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Why Safety Practices Matter in Children’s Ministry

December 12, 2010

Unfortunately not every church leadership team buys into the need for developing or enforcing sound child protection policies.  One of the top news stories locally (Atlanta, GA) of this past week serves as a great reminder why a safety-minded culture can protect the children and the church.  For the past four days, the local media has covered the story of a prominent Atlanta congregation that hired a church employee without knowing he faced charges for possessing 70 video files of child pornography.  The church leadership responded swiftly and appropriately upon discovering the charges, placing the individual on administrative leave. The part of the story that churches need to take note of is the fact that the individual did not show up on any sex offender lists. Sex registries and other databases that flag high risk individuals track convicted and not charged individuals.  The church employee was arrested in January 2010 and then hired by the church more recently (fall 2010).  For reasons not disclosed, the individual had not yet faced court proceedings and therefore had not received (or resisted) conviction.

We live in a society where defendants are considered innocent until proven guilty.  As a result, churches need to plan for participation in their ministries by high-risk individuals who may not be flagged in a background check.   In this particular story, the charged employee was not upfront with the church and did not disclose his ongoing legal problems.  As a result,  the church was not aware of the individual’s history upon hiring him.  Fortunately, the church does not believe any children were ever harmed or in serious risk during the employee’s service.  But the situation is a real reminder for why it is the responsibility of  church leadership and the children’s ministry team to take risk reducing practices seriously.

For more on the Atlanta news story see Organist Accused of Child Porn Could Head to Jail

Does your church enforce the following safety practices?

  • Background checks are updated every six months or annually
  • 2-person rule:  no child is ever left alone with a single care giver
  • Married couples and related caregivers count only as one person and cannot fulfill the 2-person rule
  • Teen caregivers serve only in the presence of a screened adult (registries do NOT disclose names of convicted teens)
  • Only females over age 15 are permitted to diaper or toilet young children and  in close proximity to  another caregiver’s view
  • Every church employee and all children’s ministry volunteers are asked in writing: “Have you ever been charged with any sex related offense?
  • Teens are screened by requiring written applications or in-person interviews and reference checks (many states prohibit the public release of  a minor’s arrest history and therefore wouldn’t show up on a background check)
  • Adult and teen caregivers are trained on appropriate vs inappropriate touch and in recognizing problematic behavior in other caregivers or children
  • Adult and teen ministry servants are aware of the reporting hierarchy & procedures if abuse concerns emerge (mandated reporting)
  • Church staff & key ministry servants are familiar with the faces and names of high risk individuals attending the church.  Practices are in place to either escort these individuals or prevent their presence in areas of the church campus with children and youth.

For other posts on children’s ministry safety see:

General Children’s Ministry Policies & Procedures

More on Safety in Children’s Ministry – Part 1

More on Safety in Children’s Ministry – Part 2

Safety in Children’s Ministry

8 Comments
  1. Jenny Funderburke permalink

    What a nightmare of a story! I appreciate your reminders of all of the safety steps that we take “just in case”. Hopefully every extra precaution will end up being more than necessary, but they are essential for the one time they are not! Thanks for the reminders!

  2. Ministry Safe is another great tool to use with your volunteers. We use them as a part of our application process which is a protection for us as a church and an effective screening process.

  3. Amy, is there “appropriate” v. “inappropriate” touch training materials that you recommend?

  4. Jared –

    Go to this link:
    http://www.preventchildabusega.org/html/trainings.html
    See “Circles of Safety:Perpetration Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse”
    This it is a free 1-hour webinar on January 11th, 2011. I participated in the webinar this past January and it went over signs a child may be being abused and signs in a fellow caregiver that he/she may be an abuser. The Georgia Baptist Convention helped to fund the training this past year. You may want to call Anna Curtis (info given on the link above) and see what webinars she recommends. She works with churches all the time.

    You can also get this training through agencies in your county/state which teach public school systems about “mandated reporting”. If you have a public school counselor in your church, he/she should be able to help you.

    One other thing – I have seen frustrated children’s ministry workers grab a child’s arm in frustration. Certainly this isn’t as serious as the “inappropriate touch” that we associate with sexual abuse. But anytime a church volunteer grabs a child, the church becomes susceptible to liability (perception is reality). It is not uncommon for a child with identified (or unidentified) special needs to have an associated behavior challenge. Understandably, such a child’s conduct may frustrate a ministry worker. But any type of physical touch applied in negative circumstances is risky – it may also “set off” the child, fueling the problematic behavior. I think it is as important to establish rules over when and how to physically handle a child (physical restraint is a no-no and hot topic in autism circles).

    Let me know if you need more information – am happy to help!

  5. P.S. The United Methodist Church has one of the best national programs I am aware of. If you have a peer in your community that applies the “Safe Sanctuaries” safety program in their church, I highly recommend it!

    I know that the United Methodist Church of Florida also has a wonderful training program and policy they have rolled out to all their churches. They provided me a copy of all their training materials and are often happy to pass them along to anyone else.

  6. This is such an important post. There is this common belief that if you go to church you must be a good citizen; obviously, that is not true. Those safety precautions that you have listed seem to prevent any sexually abusive events. Do you have any other rules for preventing any other types of abuse?

  7. Thanks Mary Kate! What other types of abuse are you speaking of? I do cover other safety related issues in the other related posts linked above.

    I have seen a frustrated preschool worker grab a child in frustration (i.e. jerk the child by the arm) – and that is certainly unhealthy although not necessarily outright physical abuse.

    Since posting this, I have had some readers come to me privately to share their stories of knowing “good people” who violated children while serving in a staff or volunteer position. Evil is everywhere and we can’t assume it arrives at church with a warning sign.

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