Today churches must look out for legal problems in the selecting and enlisting process. A church can be held liable for the actions of its teachers and workers. Charges of negligence, harassment, inefficient hygiene procedures, and abuse have been made against churches. Churches must establish policies and procedures to protect children and youth against abuse or neglect, and then see that these are followed.
Perhaps the most significant legal risk facing churches today is the risk of negligent selection. This is carelessness or a failure to exercise reasonable care in the selection of a worker. To avoid or successfully defend against an allegation of negligent selection, a church must demonstrate that it engaged in reasonable care in the selection of volunteer workers. This is important for a number of reasons today.
1. Many opportunities exist within churches for persons to engage in sexual misconduct with adults or children.
2. Trust – churches are institutions of trust and many members and leaders cannot conceive of acts of sexual misconduct occurring.
3. The amount of money damages that courts award is substantial.
4. Limited insurance coverage – as companies have excluded or reduced the amount they will pay.
5. Other damages in these situations include damage to victims, victims’ families, offenders, congregations, etc.
6. Board liability with board members facing personal liability if they refused to take steps to address this risk, or ignored danger signals.
7. Punitive damages may be accessed that are not covered by insurance.
The selecting process must include some type of screening procedure that would
include an application form, an interview, and maybe also reference checks.
Child abuse is a major problem today in our society and in our churches. It is happening in homes in every community, including homes of church members. Increasingly we are hearing of child abuse cases involving lay and ministerial staff in churches. Major national headlines in recent years have talked of ordained ministers being sexually involved with children in their care, of workers in church day care centers physically abusing and sexually molesting children, and other forms of child abuse.
The National Center on Child Abuse reports that one out of every five girls and one of eight boys is a victim of some form of sexual abuse by age 12. It is estimated that about 20% of today’s adults were sexually abused as children. Reports indicate that 250,000 to 500,000 children are physically abused each year by a parent or close relative, and that 4,000 of these children die.
Recognizing the problem
Child abuse takes on many forms. Child abuse may be physical abuse, sexual abuse, physical neglect, emotional maltreatment, or emotional neglect.
Physical abuse is beating, burning, or in some other way hurting a child. Sexual abuse is any sexual behavior with a child or the use of a child for the sexual pleasure of someone else. Physical neglect is not giving a child proper food, clothing, or medical care, or not sending a child to school. Emotional maltreatment is constantly yelling at a child or putting him down. Emotional neglect is not giving a child the love and support needed to grow into a healthy adult. Many times child abuse is coupled with the abuse of alcohol or other drugs by the parents or other caregivers.
Physical abuse may be evidenced by questionable bruises, bites, cuts, burns, black eyes, or even broken bones. The child may attempt to avoid changing clothes for gym classes. The child may appear afraid of parents or caregivers and not want to go home. The child may even shrink when approached by any adult.
Physical neglect may be a problem if the child is consistently hungry, has poor hygiene, or inappropriate dress for the weather conditions. Children that are consistently without adult supervision for long periods may be neglected. Some neglected children may go to extremes to get the attention they need and act badly or break things, or be overly affectionate and cling to adults.
Sexual abuse may be evidenced in a number of ways. If a child does not talk to an adult about the sexual abuse, certain changes of behavior may indicate a problem. The child may not want to go to a certain place or be around a particular person. He may show sexual behavior or knowledge beyond that expected for his age. She may be too affectionate and appear seductive with adults and peers. The child may have recurring genital infections or pain. There may be blood on underclothing. Sleeping problems may occur, such as bedwetting, nightmares, or fear of sleeping alone. The child may go back to younger behavior, like thumb sucking. These may be cries for help.
Children that are abused will be hurt for life. Many of them will have a poor self-image, be unable to trust or love others, be aggressive and disruptive, be depressed, and develop alcohol and drug dependency. Worst of all, it is estimated that 40% of children that are abused will become child abusers in adulthood.
Preventing child abuse
Churches need to do everything possible to prevent child abuse. This includes a strong teaching program. Children, parents, and church workers need knowledge about child abuse, and how to prevent it.
Most of the warnings to children are about strangers, not friends and family members. However, sexual abuse of children is rarely with strangers. Children should be taught that their body belongs to them, and they have the right to say “no” to anyone who might try to touch them in uncomfortable ways.
Children must be taught the difference in good and bad touches, and good and bad secrets. Good touches are like hugs or pats from special people, and they make us feel good and never need to be hidden. Bad touches involve areas covered by a bathing suit and make us feel uneasy, guilty, confused, embarrassed, or afraid. Good secrets are like surprise parties that everyone will know about later. Bad secrets are things that no one should ever find out about.
Children need to be taught to always tell if someone asks them not to tell. Parents should become suspicious when an adult begins to shower excessive attention and or gifts on a child. Parents and church workers should be very sensitive to any changes in the behavior or attitudes of a child. These may be signals of problems.
Churches should teach
The church needs to make a clear statement that child abuse is wrong. Some of the physical abuse of children is done by church people who attempt to obey the scriptures. They misquote Proverbs 13:24 and have it say, “Spare the rod, and spoil the child.” Churches need to help parents recognize the difference in Godly discipline and physical abuse of children.
The church needs to take steps to help prevent child abuse from happening. A strong family education program will help. This teaching should describe the ideal Christian home, and should address such areas as communication and discipline.
Special parenting workshops could address the problems of child abuse. These might give descriptions of various kinds of child abuse, identify characteristics of parents likely to be involved in child abuse, and give signs of child abuse occurring. Resource persons are available from the welfare department, the police department, children’s homes, or from
some denomination headquarters.
Churches need to teach workers and parents things like: a) a definition of child abuse, b) sexual and physical abuse symptoms, c) what constitutes inappropriate conduct, d) church policies that govern working with children, e) civil and criminal consequences of misconduct, and f) the rationale behind screening procedures. The church library should have at least a few books that deal with child abuse, and have them available for parents and workers to read.
The church needs to help those that have been involved in abuse situations, both givers and receivers. The church also needs to be sure that no form of child abuse is taking place by the leadership within the church.
Churches must report
The church must report any suspected case of child abuse in any of the forms discussed in this article. This is the law in all fifty states. Anyone having suspicion or knowledge of child abuse must report it to the proper civil authorities for investigation. Ministers appear not to be excluded from this. It is legally wrong and generally proves morally wrong to try to help without reporting.
The suspicion or knowledge may come from counseling, from conversation, from changing diapers, from observing behavior, or in other ways. All church workers with children need to understand this and know the procedure for reporting any suspicions. The church might require that the pastor be notified when reporting any suspicions.
Suspected cases of child abuse are to be reported to the local child welfare unit, usually the county or city social services agency. They have requirements as to how an investigation is to be made, and what to do with the results. If they believe criminal acts have occurred, they are forwarded to the county attorney for more investigation and possible prosecution.
Churches must protect themselves
Churches are being sued for being negligent for allowing abusers of children to work at the church, for not adequately supervising the children, and for failing to take proper steps when child abuse cases were suspected or reported. Churches should be sure to protect themselves by establishing adequate operational guidelines to cover these areas.
Potential workers with children and youth must be screened to help prevent any volunteer or paid staff member from committing child abuse. A six month waiting period for any new member is strongly suggested before allowing them to work directly with children. Screening will provide a number of benefits. It provides an opportunity to discourage and deter individuals who volunteer to gain access to children for sexual purposes. It may identify other applicants with histories of inappropriate conduct with children and enable the organization to reject their applications. It addresses concerns of parents and the general public regarding the safety of children receiving services.
Determine the critical information and establish criteria needed to screen volunteer applicants for your organization. Generally, it is agreed that any of the following should disqualify a person:
a) A failure to complete the screening process
b) A past history of sexual abuse of children
c) Conviction for any crime in which children were involved
d) A history of violence or any sexually exploitive behavior
e) Termination from a paid or volunteer position caused by misconduct with a child
Beyond these criteria, it is difficult to determine threats to children.
The basic tools for screening applicants using your criteria would include the application, an interview, and personal reference checks. More advanced screening could include home visits, observation, additional references, such as past supervisors, state criminal history case checks, and sex offender registries.
A written questionnaire should ask for present and past addresses and work experiences. References should be requested and all references should be checked. The form should be signed by the prospective worker and the signing should waive the right to inspect references and then gives the church permission not to hire or to dismiss if any false statement is given in the application. The hiring process should include an oral interview by the senior pastor, or a competent staff person. This screening should include asking the question, “Have you ever abused a child?” Other good questions could help uncover problems. Why do you want to work with children? What are your strengths with children?
Most child sexual abusers are repeaters. Many of them have been dismissed from a job or church position because of suspicion, and then later apply and get hired at another location.
Workers also need to be trained in how to recognize child abuse, what to do when abuse is suspected, and how to help children that have been abused. A church worker may be one that a child would tell about an abusive situation. The workers with children need to be trained in how to respond to this situation. The reaction of an adult to a child’s revelation has the power to calm or upset the child. The child should be provided privacy to tell his story. Help him to realize he is not to blame. Help him to realize he is doing the right thing in telling, although he was probably warned not to tell.
Churches need to develop and publicize policies that deal with children and workers.
a) Children should not be allowed to go to the restroom or to another room or area of the building without a parent or competent adult of the same gender.
b) There should always be at least two workers in every room with children. This helps to protect the children, but if a worker is accused, it also provides a witness to clear the innocent worker.
c) Workers should wear name tags or smocks for identification.
d) Anyone under the age of 18 assisting with children must always work under the direct supervision of an adult.
e) All alleged incidents of sexual abuse should be investigated.
f) A worker should be identified to the children as one they can go to at any time without any permission to discuss any problems.
g) Periodically inspect classrooms, bathrooms, closets, offices, and any other area where children and adults may be together.
h) All children’s rooms should have doors with windows that permit visual inspection of the room without entering.
i) The children’s area should have controlled access and should be well lighted.
j) Closets and rooms not used for programs should be secured to preclude access.
k) All activities outside the normal planned children’s ministry calendar must be approved by the pastor or a designated person.
l) Children or youth in an overnight (camping or retreat) situation should not share sleeping quarters with adults.
Child abuse is a problem in our society, and it is having an impact on churches. Churches need to minister to abusers and those abused, to help prevent any form of child abuse in homes and in the church, and to protect the church from possible law suits.