THE CHILD ABUSE EPIDEMIC
by: Attorney David Gibbs III
Children’s ministries are uniquely near to the heart of God. The Bible refers to children as a precious “heritage of the LORD”—literally an inheritance received directly from God into our care and protection. The entrustment of these treasures, with such eternal value and consequence, carries with it a mandate for stewardship that requires ministry leaders to do everything they can to protect them.
Anyone who listens to or reads the news realizes that reports of abuse and neglect of children are rising to epidemic proportions. The media is very quick to trumpet cases in which children are taken advantage of by adults in positions of trust. When such an accusation surfaces involving a ministry leader, speculation runs wild and imagination often takes over. Ministry leaders must operate the ministry not only to prevent child abuse from taking place, but also to defend against false allegations of abuse. In the court of public opinion, ministry leaders are often guilty until proven innocent.
Child abuse in churches and other religious childcare ministries is not limited to one particular church or denomination. The epidemic has reached into churches of all denominations, faiths, and sizes; rural and urban; rich and poor. Child predators are drawn to children’s programs operated by churches because of the relatively easy access they are given to children. Where else in society can a stranger say the right things and then enthusiastically be given unsupervised access to a group of children? No church that ministers to children is immune from the possibility that an allegation of abuse, true or false, will be led against a children’s worker.
Every ministry must sharply increase its efforts to prevent any child from being harmed while in its care, to protect the church and its workers from false allegations of abuse, and to respond properly to allegations of physical or sexual abuse of a child by a ministry worker. Church leaders and workers must truly understand their legal and Scriptural duties and must be able to implement and enforce a program that will protect the children in their care, the workers who provide the care, and the church itself from civil lawsuits and the resulting harm to the name of Christ. The most important and effective way to do this is to implement and consistently enforce a child abuse prevention policy.
IMPORTANCE OF A CHILD ABUSE PREVENTION POLICY
A child abuse prevention policy is important in several ways. Initially, the task of drafting the policy will force church leaders to focus on the ministry’s duty to protect children and on ways to carry out that responsibility. The policy also informs workers and volunteers in children’s ministries that church leaders consider the prevention of child abuse to be a critically important matter that church leaders take very seriously.
A well-drafted policy will also warn abusers that the church will not tolerate their sinful behavior, even if they are long-time members or leaders. The knowledge that they will not be able to hide behind the church if they are caught abusing children may prevent someone who might be tempted to abuse children from making any such attempt.
The policy will be especially helpful in instructing, and then reminding children’s workers of procedures that can protect the children from harm and themselves from false allegations of child abuse. Having in place the written child abuse prevention rules demonstrates the ministry’s professionalism and gives children’s workers a comfort level that the church is doing everything possible to protect them and the children from danger.
Liability insurance companies who underwrite liability coverage for churches and other religious organizations are beginning to require written child abuse prevention policies before they will issue coverage for claims involving child abuse. They want to be sure that their insured, the ministry, takes the child abuse prevention problem extremely seriously. The company will not only want to assure itself that a policy is in place, but also that the church is carefully enforcing the policy and training its workers in the policy requirements.
CONTENTS OF THE CHILD ABUSE PREVENTION POLICY
There is no standard child abuse prevention policy that will fit every ministry. Each policy must be carefully drafted to meet the individual needs of the church. It can be very difficult to balance a compassionate and loving ministry heart with the need for strictly-followed rules to govern workers’ contact with the children. Every child abuse prevention policy should nevertheless cover certain key areas.
The church should explain its purpose in adopting the policy. Use this section to explain the church’s awareness of the problem of child abuse and its intention to do everything reasonably within its power to protect the children and workers.
The policy should explain the Scriptural support compelling the church to adopt the policy to protect children and church workers. Quote several verses describing the Biblical duty to protect children.
The General Policy Statement
This is the place for the church to express its abhorrence of child abuse and its resolve to prevent it from happening within the church. Here too is where the church can establish that it intends to report any reasonable suspicions of abuse—whether the abuse is carried out at church by a church worker or outside the church by someone else. Explain to whom the policy and its rules apply.
Any words that are technical in meaning or may have multiple meanings should be defined to eliminate confusion and to establish conformity with state legal requirements. Include the legal definitions of such words as physical abuse, sexual abuse and neglect. Incorporate in this section how your state law defines a “child” for purposes of child abuse reporting, as well as who, by law, is a mandated child abuse reporter.
The policy should list the specific rules that are being implemented to reduce the risk of child abuse. Explain that children’s workers will be screened and required to undergo criminal and civil records checks. Do not forget to describe your policies on the use of corporal discipline. (NOTE: The NCLL strongly recommends against the use of corporal discipline by anyone except the child’s own parents. This is true even if the church has a corporal correction release form on file for the child.)
Explain the rules for taking youth on overnight and off-campus activities, transporting children, being alone with children, taking children to the restroom, working in the nursery, and how to handle children who become unruly or a threat to themselves or others. This section needs to be very detailed. Once you have listed the general rules to reduce the possibility of child abuse, you may wish to implement rules that will govern age-specific groups of children. These rules need to be carefully tailored to your ministry.
Child Abuse Reporting Procedure
If the church has not already implemented a child abuse reporting procedure, it should do so in its child abuse prevention policy. The policy should clearly establish the church’s procedures for reporting suspected abuse both internally and, when appropriate, to child protective services and/or law enforcement. The NCLL recommends that teachers and workers notify the pastor or his designee of all reasonable suspicions of abuse. Remember, the church does not have the legal responsibility of investigating to determine the validity of the allegation. Any church worker who even reasonably suspects abuse and who is a mandatory reporter must report the matter to the appropriate governmental authorities. This will usually include both the pastor and the worker who originally suspected the abuse.
Drafting this part of the policy will require church leaders to become familiar with the state mandatory child abuse reporting law as to the classes of individuals who are required (or mandatory) reporters, who may report, what information must be reported and how quickly (usually within 24 or 48 hours), and to whom and how the report must be made. In many states, a report made by telephone must be followed up with a written report within a specified period of time. Be sure to include all of this information in the child abuse prevention policy, and verify this information regularly as these laws are continually changing.
Preventing child abuse should not cause churches to scale back their ministries to children; children need the safe and loving haven of the church as never before. Church leaders and children’s workers should not labor in fear of false abuse allegations or resign their ministries to children. Millions of today’s children are craving the attention and pure love of believers who have the child’s best temporal and eternal interests at heart. These recommendations are designed to ensure that the church truly is the safe and loving haven that it should be.
Churches and children’s workers should “be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might” (Eph. 6:10) and remember that their labor for the Lord is not in vain. “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58).
It is our prayer that these guidelines will not cause a spirit of fear among children’s workers, but that the implementation of these protections will provide a sense of relief that everything possible is being done to comply with the duties imposed by law and the Bible in order to protect children, the church, and its workers.
This document provides excerpts from the National Center for Life and Liberty’s Child Abuse Prevention Policy and Procedures Guidelines, which includes a full-length Sample Child Abuse Prevention Policy. To find out more about how your ministry can partner with the NCLL and receive access to this full resource, visit our website at www.ncll.org, and click on “Partner with Us.”