Protecting children within faith communities

[Individual articles from the Summer 2016 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Humans need safety. According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, safety is even more important than our needs for belonging, esteem and self actualization and second only to our most basic physical needs (i.e. food, water, shelter). Just as children feel safe during thunderstorms when caring parents are nearby, so children should feel safe at church, surrounded by adults who care about them, value them and listen to them. Leaders want
their organizations to be safe. At a most basic level, this includes following codes and policies, but safety is not always straightforward. Safety is subjective. Depending on personal characteristics like age, gender and life experiences, what feels safe for one person may not feel safe for another.

When people feel unsafe they often feel powerless. They may withdraw, be paralyzed or fight back. Conversely, when people feel safe they can be curious, learn and grow—attributes that we especially want to foster in our children and youth. Pastors, teachers and leaders in churches and other faith communities need to invest time and resources into making children and youth feel safe. It takes intentionality to ensure basic child-proofing for young children, relational safety for school-age children (i.e. bullying
prevention) and child abuse prevention for children and youth of all ages.

Many faith community members would like to think that child abuse does not happen and that even if it does, it certainly does not happen here. They may be blinded by the feeling of “family” in the community. However, statistics show that nearly all abused children were abused by someone they knew, quite often a parent. So the excuse that “churches are like families” and therefore we do not need to follow child protection practices does not hold up. Child abuse most often occurs within relationships. In fact, over 90% of victims know their offenders. An offender may be a parent, sibling, cousin, teacher or neighbor. While we do not want to be suspicious of everyone, we do need to keep our eyes and hearts open to all the ways that children and youth may be vulnerable.

Dove’s Nest’s offers faith communities across North America training, strategies and resources for writing, adopting and implementing child protection policies. A culture of child protection includes many components. Based on age and role, training is required on the types, risks and effects of abuse and neglect. Organizations need to look at their facilities and consider how to keep children and youth safe, e.g., windows in doors, first aid kits, safe storage of sharp objects and chemicals. Faith communities need to establish procedures to prevent opportunities for two people to be alone, especially when one of those persons is older and in a position of authority. Churches need concrete plans for responding to concerns about possible abuse. Everyone working with children should be
trained on how to report child abuse to local authorities.

Dove’s Nest recommends that churches run background checks on all personnel who work with children and youth. Church leaders certainly do not want to invite someone to work with their children and youth and then find out too late that if they had only run a background check, they could have prevented a child from being hurt. While legal background checks are important, they are not perfect (and not available everywhere). So it is also important to screen all staff and volunteers in other ways. A formal or informal reference check with previous churches or employers can tell a lot about individuals, especially if they had interactions with children and youth in those places. Those doing the screening can ask former churches or employers about what roles the persons being screened had with children and youth; how children, youth and families responded to them; and under what circumstances they left. Like the background check, such measures are not enough to guarantee safety, but they are important pieces to the overall plan.

Resistance to child protection practices is common, especially when it comes to background checks. Education goes a long way in helping faith community members understand why these practices are important. It can be helpful to explain that church leaders cannot start deciding who they will and will not screen based on subjective criteria or stereotypes. Everyone needs to be screened. Another useful approach is to liken child protection practices to seat belts in cars—they were not used 40 years ago, but now they are known to save lives.

Once hired, it is important to keep a watchful eye over how staff and volunteers interact with children. Are they effective in building healthy relationships with children? Do they have healthy adult relationships to meet their own needs? Do they willingly follow child protection guidelines? Above all, churches should prioritize listening to children and their parents. Churches need to take any concerns about blurred boundaries or what may look like grooming behaviors very seriously.

Dove’s Nest frequently consults with churches on how to respond to possible abuse and how to balance protection and inclusion when someone is present who has or may have offended in the past. Take, for example, a recent account from a Mennonite pastor: A new attendee to a church had an interaction with two elementary school-age girls that raised yellow flags. He approached them and asked to shake hands. One of the girls refused, saying that he was a stranger. He replied that he was not a stranger, but a member of their church. Then he reached out and tickled her. This violated the church’s child protection policy, which states that children should not be touched without their expressed permission and that touch with children should be handled with care.

The pastor later learned the man has a history of sexual misconduct with an adult, but no legal record of misconduct with children. The pastor took this seriously and met with the man to tell him what he learned about his past, and asked him to sign a formal covenant with the church, stating that he will not have physical contact with children, will abide by the child protection policy and will not be alone with children in the congregation. It also included the provision that the pastor would inform the parents of elementary school children in the congregation about the covenant in a parents’ meeting. The man signed it and has been attending—although not regularly. When he attends, he respects the boundaries, the pastor said.

Once churches have a child protection policy in place, they need to implement and follow it, and follow it consistently. Dove’s Nest offers a checklist of things to consider when writing a child protection policy, along with many concrete examples (http://dovesnest.net/policies). The organization also offers Circle of Grace, a Christian safe environment curriculum for preschool through high school students, along with trainings on the curriculum. My book, Let the Children Come: Preparing Faith Communities to Face Child Abuse and Neglect (Herald Press, 2010), is also useful for individual or group study. Another helpful book for individuals and churches looking to deepen their understanding of abuse in faith communities is Carolyn Holderread Heggen’s Sexual Abuse in Christian Homes and Churches (Herald Press, 1993). Churches can and must surround our children and youth with safe environments and relationships and offer them the respect, love, justice and dignity they deserve as children of God. Efforts at child protection will reap a harvest of joy, wholeness and health for many years and generations
to come.

Jeanette Harder is board president and co-founder of Dove’s Nest and professor at the Grace Abbott School of Social Work, University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Learn more:

Dove’s Nest: http://dovesnest.net

Circle of Grace (2013). The Archdiocese of Omaha, Omaha, NE. Retrieved from http://dovesnest.net/circleofgrace

Let the Children Come: Preparing Faith Communities to End Child Abuse and
Neglect. http://dovesnest.net/letthechildrencome

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: http://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html

Harder, Jeanette. Let the Children Come: Preparing Faith Communities to End Child
Abuse and Neglect. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2010.

Harder, Jeanette and Haynie, Kristina. “Child Protection Practices in Mennonite Church
USA Congregations.” Journal of Social Service Research 38(2012): 248-259.

Holderread Heggen, Carolyn. Sexual Abuse in Christian Homes and Churches. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1993; reprinted Eugene, OR:Wipf & Stock, 2006.

O’Neill, Erin Olsen; Huckins, Stephanie; Gabel, Jodi; and Harder, Jeanette. “Prevention
of Child Abuse and Neglect through Church and Social Service Collaboration.” Social
Work & Christianity. 37: 381–406.

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