“O Lord, make me dwell in safety.” (Psalm 4:8)
The Lord indeed is the only true and safe refuge in life. Yet leaders have a role to play in ensuring that there is ample room for the Lord to work! Trust and faith in God is salvific but this is not a substitute for safeguards and procedures in a fallen world that requires protecting the young and the vulnerable. It is precisely in misplaced and unqualified trust that the church has been rocked by scandals – financially, sexually and abusively.
According to the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse, roughly 900,000 incidents of child abuse are reported each year. And considering it’s believed that less than 10 percent of sexual abuse cases are ever reported to authorities, the number of actual incidents each year is frightening.
According to Defining the Addiction Treatment Gap, a Closing the Addiction Treatment Gap review of the annual National Survey on Drug Use and Health released by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and other national data sources, addiction continues to impact every segment of American society.
Drug use is on the rise in this country with an estimated 23.5 million Americans addicted to alcohol and drugs. That’s approximately one in every 10 Americans over the age of 12 –roughly equal to the entire population of Texas. But only 11 percent of those with an addiction receive treatment. Alcohol and drug addiction affect behavior for a period of time after the obvious symptoms disappear. It depends upon frequency of use but the presence of marijuana and its effect can remain in a person’s system for weeks. Significant use of alcohol can have a similar effect.
How safe is the parish? When it comes to risk management, talk is a great place to start, but action is required. Parish leaders need to advocate for safety in services that are provided to children, youth, and the elderly.
This is a personal call by the priest, but any resistance to criminal background checks or testing for abusive or illicit drug use will be alleviated if the priest first steps forward and commits to being checked and tested. More and more churches are requiring random drug testing of employees and volunteers that work with children or transport them regularly.
The dangers cited above to personal safety can only exist in darkness and secrecy behind a veil of trust. It’s modern life and standard operating procedure in the business, transportation and educational communities.
Follow this basic checklist to make sure all ministry groups are compliant with basic safety practices:
1) Conduct criminal background checks on all employees and volunteers who work with children and youth.
Start with the staff and parish leaders, then screen all volunteers. Also be sure to rescreen workers with a consistent schedule that is determined by your leadership. Many insurance providers now require churches to conduct background checks annually.
2) Always check references
Ask for this information on an application and follow-up through phone calls or sending out a reference survey. It can be mailed to each person listed as a reference or used as a phone interview tool.
3) Conduct personal interviews with each ministry worker annually.
Many churches interview workers to make a placement decision but don’t have continued contact during their term of service. Set up a timeline to touch base with workers to update any life issues that may impact their service.
4) Provide continuing training for children’s and youth ministry workers.
Training is the key to a safe ministry environment. If it is thought that education is expensive, try ignorance. There is no replacement when it comes to making sure workers know what to do-and how to do it.
5) Regularly review written child-abuse-prevention policies.
Safety procedures are worthless if they’re not taught and re-taught on a continuing basis. Make sure all new volunteers are aware of the policies and procedures as part of their orientation. Retrain often as continuing education efforts.
6) Update program policies with changes as needed.
A policy is only effective when it’s current and applicable. Local and state laws constantly change, so keep up with the practices that reflect what other child care providers are doing in your community.