By Joy Allmond
Your church has trained its leaders on the risks of child sexual abuse. Your volunteers have been made fully aware of reporting procedures and they understand—and abide by—children’s ministry policies (such as the “two-adult rule”).
How, then, would a church demonstrate to the parents within the congregation and those visiting the church with their families that they’ve worked to provide a safe environment for children? What would give these visiting families the confidence to keep coming back?
Kimberlee Norris, co-founder of MinistrySafe—a consulting organization that helps churches create safety systems to meet legal standards of care and reduce the risk of child sexual abuse—says there are several ways she advises churches to communicate child safety measures as it relates to abuse.
1. Have a visual indicator of your church’s commitment to training.
Norris, an attorney, has represented victims in child abuse litigation for more than 25 years, but she’s also a parent.
“As a parent, I would want to know what kind of training they’ve had,” she says. “And I would want to hear, ‘We train our staff and volunteers about the risks of child sexual abuse. That training includes misconceptions, facts, prevalence, grooming process, and our staff and volunteers have an awareness of peer to peer sex abuse issues.’”
One simple—and instant—way she says churches can communicate this is through prominent signage that indicates they’ve gone through the training.
“We [MinistrySafe] have stickers for churches who have gone through training to put on their windows that say, ‘Trained by MinistrySafe,’” says Norris. “It’s a way for a parent to not only see it, but it spawns conversation between the parents and the staff or volunteers.”
2. Prominently display concrete policies.
Norris says every classroom, hallway, or venue where children’s activities are held on church property should display one-page documents that outline their concrete policies. She calls these “bright line” documents.
This ways, Norris says, parents can see “the absolutely imperative issues you don’t want people to overlook no matter what.” This not only shows them there are strict policies in place to protect their children; it also shows the parents the church is serious about reminders to their volunteers and staff of these policies.
“A bright lines document works especially well for those facilities that have two-way glass,” Norris says. “It can be printed on both sides and affixed to the glass. It gives the parents something to read while they’re waiting to check in their child.
I typically tell ministries to end that with a reporting requirement blurb, “we report suspicions, allegations, and neglect.”
Some examples of policies Norris says are important to outline on the bright lines document include:
- The two-adult rule (two adults must be in the room with a child)
- Bathroom policies
- A summary of reporting rules (such as, “We report allegations or suspicions of abuse.”)
- A statement briefly explaining your leaders have been screened and trained to recognize high-risk responses and behaviors (things often missed by background checks).
3. Monitor with regularity.
Norris says another outward display of a church’s commitment to preventing child sex abuse is regular monitoring and supervision of staff and volunteers who work in student and child serving programs.
“It’s important to continually review policies and do unscheduled drop-ins,” she says.
“By doing this, you’re also communicating to parents that you didn’t just wind this up and let it go—you’re supervising it, monitoring it, and having regular interaction and oversight of your child-serving programs when parents can walk through the halls of your building and can see this.”
4. Create a culture of communication.
Most churches have some sort of online registration process for their children’s and students’ programs. Norris says this is an opportunity for churches to proactively and clearly emphasize their commitment to safety.
“I have repeatedly created for my clients a one-page email that tells families who they are, what they do, and why they do it, and it references their system,” she says. “It also links back to additional information on our site.”
Through a registration response email—and on the church website—Norris says, is another way to give families confidence that your church takes their child’s protection seriously.
5. Address sexual abuse from the pulpit.
“Any context where parents are hearing about child protection is encouraging to them,” says Norris. “Especially since statistics say 1 in 4 females or 1 in 6 males will have been sexually abused before they reach 18 years of age.
“This means an extraordinary percentage of your congregation are abuse survivors, married to an abuse survivor, or are the parents of abuse survivors.”
She recommends pastors address this issue from the pulpit at least once a year because it’s important for the church to hear that “this is a real issue … it impacts individuals in our congregation—and here’s what we have in place to address this risk in our ministry.”
Norris also recommends recording such a message in case anyone asks.
“In any context where you’re communicating as a ministry what you’re doing to protect children—whether it’s on your website, in writing, or when people apply to volunteer to work with kids, you’re telling them you believe the church should be the safest place where a child can spend time,” she says.
Joy is the executive communications manager at Lifeway.