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Walking a Legal Tightrope With Screening and Training

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Children’s ministry security is not an issue that should be taken lightly. Your ministry must provide screening and training for all your volunteers.

A church-affiliated middle school interviewed Mitch for a teaching position. But, when asked why he’d left the field three years earlier, Mitch didn’t mention that he’d gotten a 15-year-old girl from his former church pregnant. The school learned of Mitch’s past a few months after it hired him.

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Hal’s first post-seminary job was associate pastor with responsibility for children. For seven years, he was a popular church staff member. Then the sixth-grade son of the senior minister told a terrible secret-Hal had molested him. The church learned that Hal had fondled eight of the church’s boys during the previous two-year period.

WHAT CAN BE DONE?

Courts often refrain from holding ministries responsible for the actions of their employees or volunteers. However, some have been more open to considering whether a ministry has been negligent in the areas of background screening and training its personnel. You can help protect your ministry and your children through these background screening and training practices.

BACKGROUND SCREENING

It’s imperative to follow procedures like these with potential staffers or volunteers. It’s also advisable to go through these steps with workers already on board with your ministry.

*Application proceduresUse a detailed application form. You can get samples from organizations such as Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Big Brothers, Big Sisters, Youth for Christ, or 4-H. Have an attorney tailor the final document to your church’s individual needs. Get a written statement from the applicant acknowledging that he or she has no background of impropriety with children or youth.

Some experts require a six-month minimum church membership for volunteers. This discourages potential child abusers who church-hop looking for a quick and easy fix.

*InterviewsDon’t stop there. Whenever your ministry is hiring a new staffer or looking for a volunteer, particularly one who’ll work closely with young children, ask probing questions. Why are you interested in children’s work? What gifts do you bring to it? Have you ever been accused of impropriety with children or youth? If so, what are the details?

Don’t fall into the “one member from every board” trap in setting up a personnel committee. While that may be a fine start, you need to have a qualified team. Committee members should be well versed in children’s work. Your interview team should know what to watch for in potential child molesters. Often, police or social-service agencies (even insurance companies) can offer training or advice.

*Criminal checkExplain to each applicant what your purpose is in using background checks. Get a written release from the applicant and complete a criminal records check. Your local law enforcement agency or the FBI can be of assistance. If an applicant refuses to cooperate, don’t permit that person to work with children.

*References-Insist on references drawn from a broad cross section of individuals who’ve known the applicant for many years and in many settings-personal, educational, and professional. And check the references carefully.

Even if the person is someone well known to your ministry, don’t bypass these steps! It’s true you may not have to delve quite as deeply, but you still need to record that you’ve taken action to protect your children!

TRAINING

During the interview process, discover the applicant’s previous child abuse education. Then have an ongoing training program for all your people. A wonderful guard against child abuse is the constant reminder to anyone who might be so inclined that your ministry is aware of what to watch out for.

*Continuing educationSome ministries have one individual who’s in charge of continuing education as his or her primary duty. First, make sure this individual is well qualified to teach about child abuse. Then insist on a certain level of attendance, even of volunteers, at the training sessions about child abuse. And when you hire new staffers or bring on new volunteers, insist that they complete an orientation program prior to engaging in any work with children.

*Confidential counselingAlways be willing to assist your people in securing confidential counseling for any problem they may have, and communicate this clearly. The church is a place of healing. If anyone is struggling with child abuse tendencies, refer them to a qualified counselor. Require the person to stop working with children and to perhaps find a “safer” ministry in the church to plug into.

*AccountabilityInstitute the “two adult” rule in every situation involving children. Discourage one-on-one encounters of an adult with a child. There’s rarely a reason in children’s ministry that two adults can’t be present. If your church is small, combine classes if necessary to follow the two adult rule. This accountability is a protection against potential incidents and against false accusations.

Your ministry should be internally accountable. Make sure your program has stated goals, that these are clearly conveyed to your staff, and that the lines of communication remain open! Regularly evaluate the ministry and each worker’s performance.

With Mitch, if the school is contemplating retaining him at all, a key will be his performance to this point in his new job. The suggested course of action for this school is as follows:

1. Carefully discuss the circumstances of the scandal with Mitch. Was he prosecuted? What has occurred in the interim? Has he received quality counseling?

2. Inform Mitch of displeasure at his failure to disclose information about his past.

3. Question Mitch carefully about other aspects of his history.

4. Communicate the school’s standards of expected behavior and carefully monitor any of Mitch’s interactions with students.

5. Conduct a thorough rescreening and remove him from any unchaperoned direct contact with children for an extended period (and perhaps permanently).

6. Consult an attorney about whether-and how-to advise parents of the situation.

7. Compile any pre-hiring screening attempted or post-hiring training offered in case the school desires to dismiss Mitch.

Hal’s situation is a bit easier to deal with in that his current conduct is criminal. Certainly, he should at least be suspended pending the outcome of criminal proceedings. If he chooses not to resign, the church could, with advice of an attorney, discreetly terminate him. One pitfall to avoid: Don’t strive to “make life miserable” for an employee so he or she will quit. It’s okay, generally, to offer someone the chance to leave voluntarily, but if the person refuses, then the church should proceed with its planned personnel action-either probation, suspension, or firing.

Drew Crislip, a West Virginia lawyer, has counseled and directed at a weeklong Christian camp for children.

Walking a Legal Tightrope With Screening and Training
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