Strengthen Your Safety Net
Church Policies and Practices to Keep Children Safe
In parishes — close-knit communities of families and friends — it’s natural to assume that children participating in church programs on church premises are safe. But, unfortunately, like any other organization with open doors, churches are vulnerable to people and circumstances that pose safety risks to children. So, what can your parish do to better ensure that the children in your keeping are safe and sound? Here are a few recommended policies and practices that should be part of the safety net of child protection protocols at your church:
1. Background Screening
All staff members and volunteers who have contact with children, youth, and vulnerable adults should undergo mandatory, periodic background checks. Making background checks routine and consistent means that everybody is subject to the same criteria across the board as standard, mandatory church policy. If people you’re uncertain of do come around, nobody needs to feel uncomfortable about asking them to submit to special screening. They’re not being singled out or called into question — it’s simply the norm! And it’s a practice that safeguards your church and your members against those who appear to have good intentions, but have ugly pasts. Providers like Shield the Vulnerable, Virtus, and LexisNexis help churches raise awareness by educating leaders and young people and facilitating background screening protocols. If your diocese is not already implementing a comprehensive and standardized awareness, prevention, and screening program, please ask about getting one started.
2. Six-Month Rule
Another simple policy to weed out volunteers with bad motives is requiring those who wish to volunteer to register with your parish and be regular attendees for at least six months before taking on a volunteer role with children. Fortunately, most folks aren’t ready to make a volunteer commitment before then anyway, unless, of course they have malicious intentions and are looking for easy access to children.
3. Two-Adult Requirement
No adult should ever be alone with a child or group of children. No matter who the adult is or how much you trust them, it’s just not a smart idea. Requiring at least two adults present at all times greatly reduces the opportunity for abuse and means that in an emergency, you have adult backup.
4. Appropriate Adult-to-Child Ratio
It’s important to have ratio requirements for adult supervision. If you have two adults to 30 toddlers, the adults won’t adequately be able to supervise what’s going on or keep track of everyone. The appropriate ratio varies depending on the age of the children being cared for. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) publishes teacher-child ratios that translate well to the church classroom or other supervised activity setting.
5. Open Doors
Whenever possible, doors should have unobscured windows, and any doors without windows should be left open. Windowless doors can present some acoustical challenges when one group of children rejoicing in the Lord at high-volume is situated across the hall from a group trying to engage in a quiet activity. Ask your leaders to be flexible and to work together to maintain an open-door environment that serves everybody. Visibility creates accountability and is another easy way to reduce the risk of abuse or misconduct.
6. Pick-up Policy
Require parents to enter the classroom to pick up their young children, and let the children know that they are not permitted to leave until they have been officially checked out by their mom, dad, or other authorized person (like a grandparent or older sibling). Your checkout process could be as simple as a nod from one of the leaders or it could be a sign-in / sign-out done on paper or in an online system. Having a system in place helps your parish ensure that children leave your care safely, with the right person. It also has the side benefit of giving your leaders an opportunity to recognize moms, dads, and other caregivers and get to know them by name, which makes a small step toward building community among your members.
7. Secured Entrances
Reinforce your child pick-up policy by making sure that the entrances to childcare and classroom areas are secured, leaving only one way into the building. Depending on the age of the children, and the number of parents you have coming in at one time, you might ask parents to wait on the outside of the entrances and enlist background-checked volunteers to fetch the children and bring them out.
8. Emergency Plans
Make sure that you document and review emergency plans in case of fires, power outages, or other dangers. Staff and volunteers should review the plans periodically and any helpful documentation — like copies of emergency plans, maps to the nearest exit, and emergency contact numbers — should be readily available in each nursery or classroom.
9. First Aid and CPR Training
If possible, offer first aid and CPR training to your volunteers and staff. You never know when that knowledge will come in handy, and it will boost their confidence as well as that of parents. If you offer training sessions at your church, you can also welcome church and community members who would like to receive training, and, voila, you’ve just created an outreach opportunity!
Welcoming the Lost and Dealing with Past Offenders
In the Year of Mercy, we as individuals and as parishes are called to be a hospital for the wounded. That includes having a heart for the lost. When people — perhaps registered sex offenders or former convicts — come through church doors carrying baggage, you’ll want to welcome them as Christ would, and you should! But understand that as you welcome them, you’ll need to heighten security. Don’t let those with a past volunteer with children. Make sure that staff and volunteers know who past offenders are so that they can watch for trouble. Your software gives you confidential notes to record any particular concerns — make sure the religious education staff who assign volunteers have access to this information, either through permissions in your system or a confidential report that you provide to them. Be a home for the lost, but protect your children, too.
A Strong Safety Net is Worth the Work
Some of these policies and practices may seem like a lot of work to implement and keep going, but ultimately, these safeguards are worth the work. Not only do they protect against danger, but having a visible safety net of policies and practices deters those who would try to harm your little ones and helps parents feel confident that their church is a safe place for them and their young ones.