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Five Resolutions for a Safe New Year
By: Bob D’Ambrosio

Jack Anderson (not his real name) thought it could never happen—not at his church! The color drained from his face when he received the call that a police investigation was in progress due to a report of sexual misconduct with one of his children's ministry volunteers.

The days of thinking nothing like this could ever happen at your church—or to the people your staff and volunteers serve—have long since ended. Not screening volunteers is simply not an option anymore. Why? Because the risk is just too great. Consider these facts:

• On average, every 43 hours a registered sex offender tries to obtain a volunteer or employment position at a nonprofit.

• From 2007 to 2011, nearly 7% of those screened for a position with a nonprofit revealed some type of criminal conviction.

• Forty-three percent of prisoners released in 2004 were re-incarcerated within three years

A five-year screening audit by LexisNexis of background checks conducted by nonprofits revealed that 6.9% of all individuals screened had some type of criminal conviction. Perpetrators are looking for easy access to vulnerable children, youth, senior citizens, and people with disabilities. Often, just knowing that a screening process is in place protects the ministry, the church, and the people the church serves.

So, what can you do? We recommend you start with these five steps to have a safe new year.

Step 1: Resolve to pray

Invite your church leadership to spend time in prayer for direction as you move forward in creating a safe church environment. Make prayer the foundation of your decisions, policies, and action steps. Prayer helps keep the focus on the real motivation for safety—God trusts us to care for the vulnerable people around us. It's our job to keep them safe.

Step 2: Resolve to create written policies

Create a written policy that explains the rationale for background checking. Determine which ministry positions will require checking and how often you'll rescreen. Have the policy approved by your church's governing board and then incorporate in to a staff handbook.

Other safety policies can include additional safety measures such as adequate staffing ratios of adults per child, open door policy for high visibility, the two-adult rule, and a waiting period before those who apply are actually placed in positions to work with kids or youth.

Once your policies are in place, it's crucial to actually communicate them to your staff and volunteers. Set expectations up front, so everyone is aware of standards, procedures, and safety measures.

Step 3: Resolve to screen

When it comes to safety, talk is a great place to start, but action is required. If your ministry is not conducting background checks, resolve to make that happen this year.

Due diligence mandates that you perform background checks for employees and volunteers who work with "vulnerable" populations (children, youth, elderly, and so on.). Historically, 7% of all non-profit volunteers and staff have a discoverable criminal record, and there are over 560,000 registered sex offenders.

What type of background check should be conducted?

A comprehensive background screening should include Social Security verification, criminal records from jurisdictions across the country, in all 50 states, and the national sex offender registry. It's not enough to run a state background check alone. Many people have lived in multiple states, and there is always the possibility that a criminal offense was committed outside of the state in which a person resides. Be sure your screenings are nationwide.

Only an estimated 3-4% of sex offenders have criminal backgrounds…meaning most never get caught. So, a comprehensive screening process should include a background check, interview, application information, and reference checking.

Step 4: Resolve to train your staff and volunteers

Training is the key to safety. Make sure those who work with children, youth, and vulnerable adults understand their role in preventing, and reporting, abuse.

Training begins with a clear understanding of the position that is being filled. Is there a written job description that outlines the responsibilities? Do you provide orientation so those working with kids understand the policies and procedures? Don't place anyone on the job until you've trained them for the job.

Parents can also be included in safety training. The Darkness to Light organization indicates in a recent survey that only 30% of parents ever discussed sexual abuse with their children. Good communication may decrease a child's vulnerability to sexual abuse and increase the likelihood that the child will tell someone if abuse has occurred.

Step 5: Resolve to lead

Start at the top. Senior pastors should be first in line for a background check, other paid staff members should follow, and then the volunteers. No one should be given access to work with kids or youth unless they have been properly screened. Lead by example.

"Screening is actually an opportunity for us to practice mutual submission and to show the community that we take the charge of nurturing and guiding children and keeping them safe from sexual harm very seriously" states Linda Crockett, Director of Clergy and Congregational Care with the Samaritan Counseling Center. "We are not arrogant enough to say, 'It could never happen in my congregation.'"

Screening Works

So, is the money spent on background checks doing any good? Is the effort to resolve to have safer ministry actually helping to keep kids safe?


The good news for the faith community and nonprofits is that diligent background screening has paid off. In their 2012 Nonprofit Screening Review, LexisNexis, a leading background check provider, announced what might be the most exciting industry review to date. Their 2007-2011 screening audit of background checks performed among nonprofits revealed the hit rate has dropped significantly in the past five years.

The "hit rate" is the number of background checks with discrepancies or matching criminal records. Hit rates from national criminal records have declined almost two percentage points, from nearly 7% in 2007 to more stabilized rates of 5.3% in 2010 and 2011. In other words, fewer people with serious criminal convictions are applying to volunteer in positions with access to children and youth.

The LexisNexis reports concludes, "While the need for continued background screening is just as vital as ever, it's good to know that industry-wide screening initiatives are being recognized and taken seriously by the volunteer population—people good and bad."

Predators who may seek out a church for easy access to kids are getting the message: You will be carefully screened! So resolve to make this a safe year of ministry!

Bob D'Ambrosio serves as a volunteer leadership consultant and the training director for Group's Church Leadership department. He works with TeamCVC regional network coaches and the Equipping Institute presenter team to provide training for church leaders, www.group.com.

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