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Creating a Safe Ministry
By: Bob D’Ambrosio

Blast from the Past:
The failure to carefully screen applicants and volunteers has resulted in many churches, schools and organizations becoming headline news. The consequences are great. The physical and emotional pain that result from criminal activity and abuse, as well as the safety hazards and the liability issues that result, are devastating. Employers and organizations utilizing the services of volunteers have a legitimate need to know of any relevant criminal history of those involved in serving their organization.
--"Background Screening Goes to Church," March 2008"

Violence will disappear from your land; the desolation and destruction of war will end.  Salvation will surround you like city walls, and praise will be on the lips of all who enter there." --Isaiah 60: 18

Ages ago, Isaiah laid out a vision for what God's presence would create—a safe, joyous place for all those who follow Jesus. He said that those who gathered near God would be protected from destructive violence and surrounded by praise and God's presence.

But today, making Isaiah's vision a reality in our churches doesn't just happen without intentional planning and hard work, especially when it comes to ministry to kids.

"Offenders go where their targets are and where the environment provides an opportunity," says Katie Zwetzig, vice president of Sterling Infosystems, a leader in national background screening. "The church, offering an open environment of trust and relationship, becomes an ideal location for abusers to search for their victims."

Consider these facts:

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

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

Children's ministry leaders need to go beyond the basics. Here are the components of a comprehensive safety plan, with expert input.

Complete Background Check
The days when ordering a background check on a new volunteer was the ultimate "extra mile" effort of ultra-careful churches are over. Today, the background check is standard practice—period. Not screening your volunteers simply isn't an option anymore because the risk is too great.

A background check is still the best single source for uncovering information about potential volunteers—and it's what courts consider "due diligence," the basic care a reasonable party should take prior to entering into a partnership with another person or group. Yet many churches still neglect background checks or have abandoned them as outdated or unnecessary.

The good news for churches and nonprofits is diligent background screening pays off. In their "2012 Nonprofit Screening Review," LexisNexis, a leading background check provider, announced exciting news: 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 declined almost two percentage points, from nearly 7 percent in 2007 to more stabilized rates of 5.3 in 2010 and 2011. What this means is fewer people with serious criminal convictions are applying to volunteer in positions with access to children and youth, possibly due in part to being deterred by a background check prerequisite.

The LexisNexis report 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." Predators seeking out a church for easy access to kids are getting the message: You will be carefully screened!

A thorough background screening must include social security verification, criminal records from jurisdictions in all 50 states, and national sex offender registry inclusion. It's not enough to run a state background check alone. Many people have lived in multiple states, and there's always the possibility that someone committed a criminal offense outside the state in which the person now resides.

Ensure the screenings and your volunteer application includes national coverage and a complete reflection of the person you're checking.

"In addition to running a criminal history and sex offender registry, adding in multiple personal references and an employment history check help to put together a more thorough picture of a person and ensures that the person's skills and abilities will match your organization's needs," adds Zwetzig.

Awareness Beyond Backgrounds
A background check is a good place to start. But experts say that alone isn't the end-all solution to keeping kids safe.

The recent Penn State scandal involving former football coach Jerry Sandusky and the public disclosure of the Boy Scouts' "perversion files," confidential files regarding sexual predators uncovered within the organization, reiterate a sad reality: Many trusted institutions put their interests and reputations above the children they serve. Tragically, churches have been guilty of this same sin.

"The tragedy at Penn State could have—and should have—been prevented," says Linda Crockett, director of clergy and congregation care at the Samaritan Counseling Center, an interfaith counseling center. "Our focus in the faith community at this moment should turn from Monday morning quarterbacking about the bad calls of [organizations] to looking deeply at our own practices in the congregation to determine what needs to change in light of terrible, but valuable, lessons learned."

The alarming news in both these examples and many others is that people kids knew and trusted were the ones who assaulted them. Sadly, this is common in abuse situations.

So if someone in your church insists he or she doesn't need a background check because "everyone knows me," experts caution it may be a red flag.

Statistics show:

• In as many as 93 percent of child sexual abuse cases, the child knows the abuser.

• Most perpetrators are acquaintances, but as many as 47 percent are family or extended family.

• About 30 percent of victims never tell anyone they've been abused.

That last statistic is another reason a comprehensive child safety program goes beyond background checks to support prevention. If there's no criminal record to weed out offenders, we have to be vigilant in other ways.

A comprehensive plan moves to the next level of safety where multiple initiatives are in place to protect kids.

Training for Everyday Safety
To strengthen your ministry's safety quotient, weave these three actions into your ministry culture.

Create awareness.
Creating a culture of safety is a team effort that starts with everyone's awareness of potential risks. If your leaders are the only ones involved in creating safe environments, you're limiting the scope of your effectiveness.

The GuideOne Center for Risk Management suggests forming a safety and security team that'll serve to oversee all risk management efforts, develop proper policies and procedures, and ensure they're implemented by staff, volunteers, and other leaders. Make safety a topic of regular conversation and training for all your team members, parents, and kids.

By enlisting all volunteers and leaders involved with services each weekend, you broaden your circle of protection. Ushers, greeters, and parking lot attendants are on your front line of observation. Noting suspicious behavior, unusual activity, or a child wandering off alone precludes risky situations from happening. Awareness also involves teaching those who work with kids the warning signs of sexual abuse.

Implement policies.
Saying your church is safe is one thing—but having action plans in place to ensure safe ministry is what matters. Determine whether your church has policies and procedures effective for prevention.

"If you don't have a policy—ask your leadership to prioritize developing one," advises Crockett. "If the response is 'we have a safe-church policy,' ask to see it and discuss it with others in your congregation as a way to examine whether what happened at Penn State or elsewhere could happen at your church."

A few must-have best practices include:

• A clear understanding by leadership of which positions require applicants to go through extensive screening processes. (The office volunteer helping mail the newsletter won't need the same level of screening as a nursery worker.)

• Careful review of pre-screen information collected through a signed application, face-to-face interview, mandatory reference checks, past employment verification, and personal recommendations.

• Implementation of a six-month waiting period between the time a person begins attending your church and allowing him or her to work with children.

• A two-adult rule which has adults work in teams to avoid alone time with a child.

Other policies to consider include having high visibility for all activities with children (no closed doors); a child check-in and check-out system, a restroom usage process, and adequate adult-to-child ratios.

Focus on training.
Training is your best, most effective method for maintaining a safe ministry. It begins before a new volunteer even starts.

Do you have a written job description outlining responsibilities? Do you provide orientation so those working with kids understand the policies and procedures and commit to abiding by them?

Proper staff training includes appropriate touch; discipline protocol; and how to recognize the signs of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.

Include parents in safety training.
Darkness to Light, an organization focused on ending childhood sexual abuse, indicates that only 30 percent of parents discuss sexual abuse with their kids. Good communication reduces a child's vulnerability to sexual abuse and increases the likelihood that a child will tell someone about abuse.

While we can't wrap a security blanket around every child and every program, we can take steps to achieve a higher level of safety. Perhaps King David expressed it best when he said, "Trust in the Lord and do good. Then you will live safely in the land and prosper." --Psalm 37:3)

Bob D'Ambrosio serves as the consultant and training director for Group's Adult & Church Leadership department. He's a 25-year veteran of church equipping ministry and is certified in volunteer administration.

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