Several years ago, a small mountain church was shocked by charges leveled against its bus driver. Two girls he picked up every Sunday alleged he was taking detours regularly to molest them.
The girls stood by their charges and the man was convicted. This and similar stories emphasize the need to protect children’s safety, said childhood specialist Janice Haywood.
“It happens in congregations we think are the safest,” said Haywood, retired after 32 years with the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina.
Fortunately, most churches are at least considering adopting safety and security policies, including background checks of staff members and volunteers, the Cary resident said.
Although she has emphasized safety for 20 years, Haywood said the 9-11 terrorist attacks and sexual abuse reports about the Catholic Church have stimulated public concern.
stock.xchng graphic illustration by Bensik Imeri
“I think people are becoming more aware in other areas of their life,” said Haywood, who teaches at Campbell University’s divinity school. “While church people may trust each other, the people they’re trying to reach don’t trust them. We’re going to have to do this to reach those outside the church.”
According to Haywood, a leading area of resistance involves background checks.
Some longtime members take this as a personal offense and refuse to complete a form, she said.
When a pastor or other official backs down and doesn’t require everyone to submit information, the system breaks down, Haywood said. In some cases, churches collect data on individuals but fail to follow up with a records search.
That leaves a wide-open door for child molesters and others who want to harm children, she said. Problems also arise when a church has a security system requiring a tag or other proof that a person is a child’s parent or guardian, but doesn’t enforce it when a worker knows a particular individual.
“I tell a church to give themselves 18 to 24 months minimum to write policies and get them passed,” Haywood said. “You have to educate the congregation in small groups and explain why we need the policies, why it’s important and why society expects them.”
A Baptist trustee whose company handles background checks for businesses and churches saw the need for them first-hand when his congregation experienced a growth spurt.
“At our church we check everyone from paid staff on down, even the janitor,” said Roger Self, president of Prevent Losses and chairman of trustees at Venture Church in Dallas. “People ask, ‘Why the janitor?’ He’s in your building. He’s around children. You don’t want a sex offender or a convicted drug dealer walking down the hall. We’re not saying we don’t want them coming to church, but we don’t want to be held liable for somebody else’s offenses.”
Guidelines the church adopted after it started doubling attendance about five years ago disqualify applicants from working with children or students for various reasons.
Among them: sexual offender status, any form of child abuse crime, sale or distribution of drugs, and pending criminal charges.
Background checks are necessary for anyone who spends time with children, regardless of how well you think you know them, Self said.
“Think about a trip to a Baptist camp,” he said. “You’re sending somebody to spend time with your children for a week-long youth retreat. Background checks can prevent something from happening.
“It’s not a 100 percent guarantee that something isn’t going to happen. They could come back as clean as a whistle and still hurt one of your children. But the church has done what it needs to do.”
A continuing concern about security questions involving children and other areas of the church prompted formation of a safety and security task force recently at Hayes Barton Baptist in Raleigh.
Hayes Barton instituted its original child protection policy in 2003. It requires any worker since its adoption to go through a background check, attend abuse awareness training and sign a statement affirming they haven’t been investigated for child abuse.
It also requires a minimum of six months in the church before they can volunteer to work with children, and requires two adults to be in the room when children are present.
Despite these guidelines, questions raised at a deacons’ retreat last year led to the formation of the taskforce, said Kristen Muse, minister with children.
While the group is examining various security questions, some steps have already occurred. In early January, the preschool department started using computerized check-ins on Sundays and Wednesdays.
The touch-screen system includes allergy information about each child and prints out security tags for children and parents.
Muse said there have been some “kinks” that are still being worked out. However, parents are generally positive and workers are glad that information is readily available, especially data on allergies, she said.
“I think it’s been accepted; it’s just a process,” Muse said. “New people are particularly glad that we have something to protect the children. We want to be pro-active to make sure nothing happens, or at least that we have done our due diligence.”
Churches that haven’t taken these kinds of steps should be prepared to do so in the next few years, Haywood said.
“I think in a few years, if you have liability insurance you will have to have a safety and security policy,” she said. “Your head is in the sand if you think pedophiles or other people who want to do harm to children aren’t looking for places that are easy. Churches are sitting ducks.”
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