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Your Ministry and the Law: Protecting Yourself From Lawsuits

Expert tips from a lawyer on legal issues in your
ministry.


Brad had caused trouble the entire week of camp. Skip Doyle, the
camp counselor, had tried to gently discipline the fifth-grader,
but nothing seemed to work. Finally, Skip firmly spanked the boy
once with his open hand.

The next week, Skip, the camp and its director were served with
notice of a lawsuit by Brad’s parents. The following week, another
set of parents filed their own lawsuit against the camp. Their
charge: that the camp had failed to discipline Brad effectively
earlier in the week and that their son had been injured as a direct
result of Skip’s non-intervention! The director wished he’d shipped
Brad home at the initial sign of trouble-on the first night of
camp!

We live in a lawsuit-crazed world-some lawsuits are well-founded
while others aren’t. How can you protect yourself and your church
from becoming entangled in a legal web? Follow these principles in
the areas of discipline, recreation, medical concerns and
safety.

DISCIPLINE

Discipline in children’s ministry can be a tough issue. How can
you maintain control responsibly?

To spank or not to-First of all, let’s look at Skip’s
predicament. Even if spanking was an advertised camp policy, it
should’ve been administered with parental phone permission and a
responsible witness. Even then, it should’ve been avoided if
practicable. Certainly, Skip first should’ve conferred with his
director, who might’ve sent Brad home instead. With this option, an
adult should’ve accompanied Brad unless the parents and insurance
carrier consented to unchaperoned travel.

What can we learn from Skip’s situation? Present a carefully
written discipline policy to parents and solicit their input. Then
train your teachers ahead of time in discipline methods. Don’t
administer any discipline without prior approval of parents to
administer that discipline if necessary. And make sure you have a
witness present when you do discipline.

Intervention-Jesus left the 99 to save the one, but we
don’t always have that freedom, especially with children! Skip’s
leniency with Brad prior to the spanking raised the ire of the
other children’s parents. Whenever the safety or welfare of other
children is jeopardized by the misbehavior of one, it’s your
responsibility to intervene and do something about it.

RECREATION

Another set of parents filed suit against the above camp,
complaining of the camp’s “recklessly dangerous, crazy games.”
Risky recreation can result in lawsuits. Protect yourself with
these easy steps:

Get permission. With recreation, the best defense-besides
avoiding chancy stunts-is to let parents know what the recreation
will be before they authorize their kids’ participation. Have
parents sign release forms before kids participate.

Don’t require participation. In addition, children should
never be required to engage in activity where even minor injury is
a reasonable possibility. You may, however, require them to be
involved through sideline activities such as cheering or
scorekeeping.

MEDICAL CONCERNS

Your ministry should have a list of qualified medical personnel
in your area in case of an emergency. Always have someone in your
nursery who is trained in basic first aid and CPR. Even better,
have your entire staff certified in CPR! The Red Cross offers
classes and will even conduct on-site training if you have enough
participants.

Keep updated health forms on every child and adult in your
ministry. Include the following on each health form:

  • person’s name;
  • health problems, including allergies;
  • current medications, including contact lenses;
  • statement signed by an underage child’s parent or guardian
    permitting emergency medical treatment;
  • name, address and phone number of at least two people to
    contact in an emergency;
  • insurance company and policy or group number;
  • person’s regular physician’s name and phone number;
  • person’s social security number; and
  • recent picture of the person.

SAFETY

The two most pressing safety concerns in your ministry are
protecting the children from injury and guarding against
abductions. Let’s take a look at these areas.

Injury protection-Be aware of safety issues regarding the
equipment on your playground and in your area. Regularly check the
equipment to ensure that it’s in good condition. Also, watch out
for potentially dangerous areas when you take children on a field
trip. One attraction that kids love, but can be deadly, is the
popular ball cage in many for-kids-only restaurants. When several
children are in the cage at one time, one child could be buried
beneath the balls and another could jump on his or her neck.
Maintain a constant vigilance around dangerous equipment, or forbid
your children to play with risky contraptions. Be on guard for
other safety issues and provide adequate adult supervision at all
times. During travel, insist that seat belts be worn.

No church should be without insurance that covers injuries during
ministry programming or outings. Check with your senior pastor or
insurance carrier to determine if your church’s policy provides
adequate coverage for the children in your ministry.

Pickup policies-Four-year-old K.K. Nicholson was picked
up at her church-based child-care center by her non-custodial
mother. But K.K.’s mother didn’t have permission to retrieve her.
The two disappeared for a year.

K.K.’s situation isn’t unusual, although most cases aren’t as
tragic. Often, a good-intentioned friend or relative may come to
retrieve a child. But never assume that a strange person isn’t an
abductor-especially in large churches or small churches with many
visitors.

To address this, some programs have adopted a “token” policy. Each
child has a small token pinned to his or her clothing, perhaps a
wedge of cardboard or even a jigsaw-puzzle piece with the child’s
name written on it. The parent is given a matching token with the
child’s name and told that whoever picks up the child must exhange
the token for the child.

Drew Crislip, a West Virginia lawyer, has directed and
counseled at a weeklong Christian camp for children each summer
since 1974.

(This article should be considered an overview and not “legal
advice.” If you are in need of information on how the law applies
to a given situation, consult an attorney directly.)

Copyright© Group Publishing, Inc. / Children’s Ministry
Magazine


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Your Ministry and the Law: Protecting...

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