Almost every day, there is another account of someone whom parents should be able to trust, preying on children and teens. Teachers, coaches, even ministers have been caught hurting young people in ways that will scar them for life. And yet whenever I ask a roomful of ministries and non-profits working with young people how many do criminal background checks on volunteers, less than 30% are running background checks.
Why? Because we all believe it could never happen in our ministry or at our church. We know everyone and they are all so sweet, kind and loving. They would never hurt anyone – especially a child. It’s absolutely horrifying though, how many people I meet who attend church with registered sex offenders who are being pushed by leaders to volunteer in children’s ministry to “prove” they have repented. Or the number of people I meet who were sexually molested by a minister, church leader or “trusted” member.
Protecting our students used to be difficult. Databases weren’t as thorough and checking them was expensive. But even then, there were basic safety measures that could be put in place to help keep young people safe. EVERY ministry and church should be doing all of these safety measures. Period. No exceptions. Ever. Every exception you make is opening a way for Satan to potentially use someone to harm the young people you are serving.
So what should every ministry, church and non-profit do to protect their students?
- Criminal Background Checks. In most cases these check for felonies and can check the national database as well. They are only a few dollars each now or the national sex offenders database is free. (It will not inform you of other potentially important felonies though.)
- Reference Checks. Any volunteer should be able to provide two or three references of people who know their character. Yes, it’s absolutely possible to scam their way through this one, but most predators will walk away when they start seeing this level of security. Check the references no matter who the volunteer may be. Be sure to ask, “What one aspect of their character do you think they still need to improve?” This question or a similar one will be the most likely to reveal that someone has anger issues or other behaviors that could scar children.
- Two Volunteer Policy. Classes, activities – anything where young people will be present should have two unrelated volunteers serving together. This lessens the opportunity for covering for the other person. In the case of emergencies, you need to have floaters or substitutes who can step in to replace the missing person.
- Open Door Policy. A volunteer should never be in a room with children where the door is closed, if it does not have a window in it. Parents, leaders and others should be able to quickly peek into a class at any point in time and see what is happening.
- Child Retrieval System. This can be as simple as matching numbers with rotating colors or patterns to make it hard to copy or professional systems you can purchase. Children should not be allowed to scatter when class has ended. Only the person with a matching number (or whatever) should be allowed to pick up the child. The number of incidents where a non-custodial parent snuck into a church and grabbed a child is too high. You can’t possibly know the various family issues in every family you serve. A retrieval system will let you know the person picking up the child is approved by the person who dropped the child off to you.
- Classroom Management Guidelines. This document should be read and signed (with the volunteer keeping a copy), by anyone who volunteers. It should contain acceptable and unacceptable classroom management techniques, consequences for misbehavior, and more. We have a rough sample you can see on our website, but contact your lawyers and insurance companies for the specifics you need in your particular situation.
- Ministry Student and Volunteer Conduct Standards and Rules. While many of these will be behavior focused, there is one rule every ministry should have in place. Young people should not be allowed to leave a group setting and go anywhere alone. They should be accompanied by a volunteer or a same sex peer – particularly if going to a restroom. It’s also important to encourage parents to take the same precautions during worship services and other times when the halls and restrooms are relatively empty.
- Volunteer Training. This is a great way to use the tools above and to teach other important safety rules. For example adults mentoring young people – especially teens- should only meet them in public places. You may also want to provide CPR and First Aid training for volunteers.
Please don’t allow something harmful to happen to one of your students because this list seems like a lot of work. Or because you are afraid you will lose volunteers if you enforce all of these standards. Your students and their safety is one of your most important priorities. It is very difficult to convince a child to become a productive, faithful Christian when the most horrid event of his or her life happened at church or a ministry event. Do what you must do to protect your young people.