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Protect the Innocent with Effective Screening
By: Donald J. Dymer

It is important to understand how a well-developed and consistently conducted background screening program can examine the past behavior of individuals employed or volunteering in faith-based organizations. Learn how youth serving organizations can meet the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention's goal "to select the best possible people for staff and volunteer positions and to screen out individuals who have sexually abused youth or are at risk to abuse."

Whether it is the proliferation brought about by the Internet or a decline in moral values, the fact is that the instances of child sex abuse and molestation have reached epidemic levels. Churches, like other organizations, are facing bigger threats every day from pedophiles and those whose value systems do not protect children. It is not a new occurrence, but it is certainly reported more often.

A former youth pastor at Buhl's Calvary Assembly of God in Louisiana has been accused of committing more than 60 felony sex crimes against children. He faces 50 counts of aggravated rape, 6 counts of juvenile molestation, 4 counts of sexual battery, and 2 counts of attempted aggravated rape. His alleged crimes happened between 2003 and 2007.  His position allowed him to supervise and interact with the juveniles who attended the church and its youth  functions.

Although male offenders are the most prolific, there is a larger incidence of females than most would believe. A Willits middle school teacher pleaded guilty recently to a pair of molestation charges under a plea agreement that carries a 6-year, 8-month prison sentence. She pleaded guilty to the continuous sexual abuse of a child under the age of 14.

The following recent case from Albany, Georgia, spells out the difficulty in fulfilling our obligations to protect children. A former Bible studies, geometry teacher, and track coach at Sherwood Christian Academy, will spend the next 2 years in prison and an additional 18 years on probation after making a plea to molesting a female relative. Four people took the stand Monday to testify on her behalf, including the former chairman of the County Board of Education, who testified that he had never had any reason to question her character.

The perpetrators in all these cases had no previous history of child sexual abuse or any other form of sexual assault. A criminal record check, including a fingerprint check, would have reported that they had no previous records. References from friends, employers, and the groups each person worked with would have stated that he was a good person. No flags were raised.

Very few child molesters have convictions, or are identified through traditional screening programs. That is the problem. Their victims, by the very nature of the offense, are either scared, threatened, or even persuaded that this is normal behavior. It is not until much later in their young lives or as adults that these matters surface, if indeed they ever do, and, by then, irreparable mental harm has been done.

Whether it is as a pastor, employee, volunteer, or in any other capacity that an adult is likely to interact with children, every effort must be made to ensure that the best information about the applicant for that position is obtained. Every attempt must be made to minimize risk and select only the best and most suited applicants. The recruitment of volunteers, in particular, is especially difficult, with fewer people wanting to undergo the screenings needed, but standards must be set and adhered to.

The question of cost is always an issue, and the decision about the extent of screening programs is often dictated by cost. Many organizations have their volunteers pay for at least part of the cost. Despite the cost issue, there are fundamental inquiries that must be made. The failure to conduct adequate screening can result in very costly litigation if it can be shown that the perpetrator's character and past history could have been known through background screening.  Programs must be developed and consistently applied with no exceptions.

The basic background screening should at least answer the following questions:

* Is the applicant who they say they are? 
* Has the applicant ever been arrested or convicted of a crime that is relevant to the position they seek?   
* Is the applicant a convicted registered sex offender?

These questions are essential, but they only provide historical data and, in the absence of records, supplye no indicator of future behavior.

The above cases are haunting and a clear indicator that something else is needed to supplement the regular screening of employees and volunteers.

The federal government (NIMH) has awarded grants to find ways to protect children from sexual abuse by studying the differences between people who sexually abuse children and people who don't. After the initial research and pilot studies, a screen has been developed that does not require therapists to administer, but can be administrated by HR personnel or administrative assistants of the youth-centered agencies using it. The screen is computer-based, fully confidential, and takes 25 minutes.

The screen is a scientifically validated test that identifies people who should not be placed in positions of trust with children and teenagers. They may step over a sexual boundary line with children or they may present a sexual risk. Used as one component of an organization's overall application/interview/screening process, it identifies men and women most likely to violate sexual boundaries with children and teens. The screen measures sexual risk; some people who fail are pedophiles, some people are permission-givers who have an exceedingly poor understanding of appropriate sexual boundaries with children and teens.

The availability of such a screening tool marks a significant breakthrough in the protection of our children. It quickly and inexpensively asks the child safety questions that staff do not have the experience to ask. Every organization dealing with youth and children should be employing this screening tool.

Donald J. Dymer, MBA, is president and chief executive officer of SingleSource Services, www.singlesourceservices.com.

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