Everyone expects their church to be a safe place for children. According to longtime church business administrator Edwina Cowgill, that's not something that can be taken for granted safety has to be cultivated.
Cowgill is the business administrator for Redemption Fellowship in LaFayette, Ga. At the Worship Facilities Expo (WFX) in Dallas last year, she took on the tough topic of child abuse. She explained to attendees that effective processes, risk identification, and thorough screening of new hires will help ensure that families and their children remain safe inside church walls.
Child Safety Policies
The responsibility of a church to protect its children is one that comes from God, according to Cowgill. But there are additional reasons to be concerned. "Almost 33 percent of churches ended up in court due to cases related to sexual molestation in the last six years," she reports. "Yet most churches face a head buried in the sand' syndrome, which prevents them from implementing child safety policies they think nothing of the sort would happen in their church."
An ideal child safety policy, Cowgill explains, is a published, accessible document that contains a Purpose Statement, a scope or outline, a Code of Ethics, a glossary section and, of course, practical policies. These policies might include:
- Recruitment and hiring protocol (screening, reference-checking, etc.).
- Handling procedures in the case of accident or emergency.
- Door and entrance guidelines.
- A two-adult rule (whereby no child is ever alone with a single adult).
- Nursery and toddler check-in and checkout procedures.
- Advance notice standards (the method and timing by which parents will be alerted to scheduling or location changes).
Employee & Volunteer Background-Checks
As a legal and administrative matter, a church's policies can go a long way toward defending against any implication of neglect. This is especially true when it comes to the hiring of employees or the admitting of volunteers.
"In case a church ends up in court," Cowgill explains, "it can present its screening procedures and let the court know that the individual was completely looked upon before hiring."
Indeed, background checks and screening processes reduce the risk that a church hires someone with a past criminal record with child abuse. According to Cowgill, the ideal screening process would include:
- A series of introductions whereby trusted team members are enabled to gather first impressions of a candidate.
- A proper and thorough personal interview of the candidate by the respective authority of that department in which the candidate wishes to work.
- Participation in a thorough interview by clergies, pastors, and other leaders.
- The obtaining and following-up of personal and professional references.
- A nationwide background check (CORI, for example), preferably going back at least 10 years.
- Inquiry of any past misdemeanors or felonies.
Recognizing & Reporting Abuse
In addition to screening and procedural policies, worship facilities should also train their employees and volunteers to identify and report signs of child abuse. Moreover, they should be taught to respond to reports.
"When an allegation is made on a church's staff member regarding abuse, the church officials must be prepared," Cowgill says. "The safety of the victim should be the church's primary concern, and the parent should be notified as soon as possible." She adds, "The accused child abuser should be immediately removed from activities which involve interaction with children."
In response to a report of child abuse, Cowgill says administrators, employees, and volunteers should inform the senior pastor, the elders or deacons, law enforcement and "a qualified individual from the Child Protection Agency, who should be permitted to interview the abuser." In addition, a written should be maintained of all the steps taken in response to the allegation.
"Within 24 to 48 hours of the discovery and reporting of the abuse, a letter to the congregation may be mailed," Cowgill suggests, "which briefly explains the situation and the initial action taken by the church." She adds, "Tell the truth and engage in open, honest communication about what has happened. The letter will include a statement of the actions taken to assure the safety of all the children.
Geoffrey Oldmixon is a Massachusetts based freelance writer and editor.