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General Safety in Children's Ministry

Judi Bailey

"A ministry that makes safety and security for kids a high priority is a witness to God's love, expressed through caring staff and volunteers."

Playground accidents result in 17 deaths and 170,000 emergency room visits each year.

Car, bus, and van accidents are one of the top three types of injuries for which churches are repeatedly sued.

Two of the largest insurance companies that insure churches report they receive up to two claims a day from churches for serious injury and one a day for sexual molestation.

Six-year-old Jolene loves coming to Sunday school. Her teacher and friends know her as Jolie. Her single mom never thinks twice about dropping her off at Sunday school; church is a literal sanctuary in the inner city neighborhood they call home. To them, church is a good place, a fun place, a safe place. But is it?

Virtually every activity Jolie will be involved in on Sunday morning holds some potential risk. From being dropped off, to playing on the see-saw, to going to the bathroom. This reality isn't meant to scare you but to open your eyes to situations and circumstances that could prove harmful to your kids and your ministry.

Keeping kids safe is a ministry in and of itself: "A ministry that makes safety and security for kids a high priority is a witness to God's love, expressed through caring staff and volunteers. Many more people will have their faith diminished by an incident than will turn away from God because precautions are too burdensome," say William Stout and James Becker, authors of The Good Shepherd Program. The good news? Nearly all risks are preventable with your savvy application of these guidelines.

PLAYGROUND SAFETY

Jolie challenges a friend to see who can swing the highest.

According to Consumer Products Safety Commission data, playground accidents result in 17 deaths and 170,000 emergency room visits each year. And most playground accidents are due to falls. Accident-proof your play area with these guidelines from the National Recreation and Park Association.

Clear the ground of objects that could cause a child to trip, such as tree roots, rocks, and concrete anchors.

Swings, seesaws, and other pieces of moving equipment should be at least 12 feet apart to create a safe "fall zone" and reduce the risk of kids getting hit by a swing or another child.

The ground should be covered with rubber tiles or mats or 12 inches of loose mulch, sand, or pea gravel. This should also extend at least 6 feet around the perimeter of equipment.

Openings between ladder rungs should be greater than 9 inches to avoid strangulation.

Platforms, ramps, and bridges should have guardrails to prevent falls. Guardrails and slats should be less than 3 1/2 inches apart.

Provide adequate supervision-more than 40 percent of injuries are related to a lack of adult supervision.

Inspect the outdoor area daily for debris such as broken glass, trash, and animal droppings; standing water; and signs of insects such as wasps' nests and anthills.

Inspect regularly for sharp parts or edges; worn swing chains and S-hooks; loose nuts and bolts; and rotting wood, splinters, rust, or peeling paint.

HEALTH PRACTICES/FIRST AID

Jolie brings an inhaler for her asthma to Sunday school. The National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care offers these tips for maintaining good health practices and keeping your kids safe from accidents.

Medications

  • Medication or special medical procedures should be administered to a child only when there's a written, signed, and dated request from the parent(s)/guardian(s).
  • Prescription drugs and other medications should be in the original containers and clearly labeled with the child's name and dosage schedule and should include written directions for administering the medication.
  • The time and dosage of all medication administered to children should be recorded and a copy provided to the child's parent(s)/guardian(s).
  • All medication should be kept in an area inaccessible to the children and removed when no longer needed.

Toileting/Diapering

  • Staff should wash their hands with soap and warm running water before and after assisting with toileting, diapering, or wiping noses and after exposure to blood or body fluids.
  • Surfaces contaminated with blood or body fluids should be cleaned with a solution of chlorine bleach and water.
  • The changing area should be located within clear view of anyone entering the room.
  • The changing area should include a surface with a clean, seamless, waterproof, and sanitary covering for each changing process.
  • Staff should wear disposable plastic gloves when changing diapers or dealing with blood or body fluids.
  • Changing tables should be sanitized after each use by washing to remove visible soil and then wiping with an approved sanitizing solution. Or use disposable, nonabsorbent paper sheets and discard them immediately after each diapering.
  • If disposable diapers are used, they should be placed in a covered, plastic-lined container and disposed of daily.
  • Individual wipes or a clean single cloth wipe should be used at each diaper change and should be placed in a plastic-lined, covered container and disposed of properly-out of the reach of children.
  • No child should be left unattended while being diapered.
  • Children's hands should be washed after toileting.

First Aid

  • You should have first-aid kits on each floor of each building used by children, near all outdoor play areas, and on all field trips.
  • Each first-aid kit should include at a minimum: scissors, tweezers, gauze pads, adhesive tape, assorted types of Band-Aids, an antiseptic cleansing solution, thermometer, ipecac syrup, two or more triangular bandages, disposable gloves, and a first-aid instructional manual.
  • Each kit must be out of the reach of children, but easily accessible to staff.
  • All staff must know where the kits are located.
  • Your staff and volunteers should be trained in basic first aid and child and infant CPR.

TRANSPORTATION

Jolie and the other children will be chauffeured to the Civic Auditorium where they'll perform the Christmas program.

"Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among children," says Dr. Ricardo Martinez, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. They kill about 2,000 children and injure 325,000 others each year. And Legal Guide for Day-to-Day Church Matters states that car, bus, and van accidents are one of the top three types of injuries for which churches are repeatedly sued. That means if you transport kids in your ministry for any reason, you need to follow these guidelines:

  • Obtain written consent from the parent for any transportation provided.
  • The driver must be at least 18 years of age and possess a valid driver's license.
  • All vehicle doors must be locked whenever the vehicle is in motion.
  • No vehicle shall begin moving until all children are seated and secured in age-appropriate safety restraints, which must remain fastened at all times the vehicle is in motion.
  • Children shall never be left unattended in a vehicle.
  • The back of pickup trucks must never be used to transport children.

FIRE/EMERGENCY

Jolie is in the bathroom, and not with the class, when the fire alarm goes off.

The National Fire Protection Association reports that each year there's roughly one reported fire for every 150 churches in the United States and that the general trend of church fires of all kinds is on a downward trend. That's good news, and here are some prevention tips to keep snuffing out potential tragedies.

Prepare an emergency evacuation plan that's approved by your local fire authority and addresses staff responsibility in these areas:

  • sounding of fire alarms and notification of local authorities.
  • evacuation procedures, including gathering points, head counts, primary and secondary means of exiting, and checking to ensure complete evacuation of the buildings.
  • fire containment procedures; for example, closing of fire doors or other barriers.

Emergency evacuation procedures should be posted on each floor of each building in locations highly visible to staff and children.

An emergency number such as 911 should be posted in a conspicuous place near each telephone along with other emergency numbers.

Require monthly fire and emergency drills for staff and children.

CHILD ABUSE/ABDUCTION

Jolie's dad lives in a neighboring state.

"We need to avoid hysteria [about child abuse]. Churches are not covens for sexual abuse, but it is happening too often. It's harmful not only to the child, family, and the church, but it's harmful to the gospel," says William Stout, co-author of The Good Shepherd Program, a program designed to help churches and other ministries develop strategies to reduce the risk of abuse or injury to kids. Stout says two of the largest insurance companies that insure churches report that they receive up to two claims a day from churches for serious injury and one a day for sexual molestation. Those aren't incredible numbers considering there are approximately 300,000 churches in the United States, but as Stout said, it's still too often. Here's what you can do to safeguard your ministry against the risk of child abuse and abduction.

Abduction

  • Use a claim check, ticket, or token system so children are dismissed only with the person who dropped the child off.
  • Have parents give written permission if someone other than themselves will pick up a child.
  • Create a poster that highlights your drop-off/pick-up policies for parents.
  • Fence play areas and require that children always have adult supervision on the playground.

Child Abuse

The National Foundation to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse reports that one in three girls and one in six boys will be subjected to some form of sexual abuse by the age of 18.

Every state has mandatory child-abuse reporting laws. Volunteers and staff who work with kids in your ministry may be mandated reporters of child abuse. If they fail to report knowledge or suspicion of abuse, they could be held criminally liable. Reporting laws vary from state to state-if you suspect a child's been abused, contact the child protective services in your state for specifics.

Create a line of defense against possible abusers by using the following guidelines in your ministry.

Staff Selection and Screening

First, determine potential abuse risk for the different activities in your ministry. A low-risk activity might be a nursery cleanup day. A high-risk activity might be working in the nursery or driving a van. Consider what risks the activity creates; then staff and screen appropriately.

Becca Cowan Johnson, in her book For Their Sake outlines these steps toward safe volunteer selection and screening:

  1. A completed application is your first screening tool. You can glean information such as residence history (may alert you to someone who moves frequently and unexpectedly); dates and types of employment (may identify unexplained gaps or suspicious reasons for termination); extracurricular or volunteer work (is the person involved with peers or only with children?). Depending on state legislation, you may be able to include a section for written consent to check any criminal records. Anyone who does not answer all of the required questions or who refuses to fill out the application should not be considered.
  2. An interview with each prospective staff member or volunteer allows you to watch behaviors and mannerisms while seeking clarification from the application and allows you to ask key questions. Ask open-ended questions along with closed-ended questions to get at information you need. For example, ask, "Why do you want to work with children? Given the following situation [provide a common scenario], what would you do?"
  3. Require references and ask the references, "How would you describe this person's character? Would you hire this person to care for your own children?"

Prevention

Require staff training. Training needs to include such areas as appropriate and inappropriate staff behavior, laws and regulations, understanding abuse, indicators of abuse, and staff responsibilities. For help on how to structure your training and what to include, use resources such as The Good Shepherd Program by William Stout and James Becker, Play It Safe, by Jack Crabtree, or For Their Sake by Becca Cowan Johnson.

Observe staff members' interactions with children.

Examine your program, looking for situations where abuse might occur; then provide written policies in those areas. Policies might include the following:

  • Staff members should always be in view of others.
  • Adults should supervise children in pairs.
  • Suspicious or unusual observations must be reported and/or recorded.

ELIMINATING RISK

Making your ministry safe doesn't need to feel overwhelming. Here are a few easy ways to take steps toward a safer ministry.

  1. Using this article as a basis, evaluate with your staff what safety areas your program is weakest and strongest in.
  2. Make an action plan to target specific areas; note action items (for example, renovating playground equipment) and assign responsibilities and completion dates for each item.
  3. Schedule any training that needs to occur. Check the phone book for your local Red Cross, fire department, law enforcement officials, or child abuse prevention center as possible resources.
  4. Use experts in your congregation. Put a notice in the church bulletin or newsletter asking for people with knowledge/expertise in the various safety areas. Follow up to see if these people could hold a short training time for your staff and volunteers.
  5. Notify church staff and parents of your plans/changes.
  6. If you don't have a staff safety manual, put one together detailing critical areas of safety.
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