If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Matthew 18:6
The church must surround the children in its care with people who are safe and loving. Why, then, do so many churches fail to properly vet those who work with them? The answer is surprisingly simple: trust. Church leaders want to believe that its congregation members are worthy of its trust.
The sad truth is that abusers know this, and they take advantage of the trust placed in them. The fix for this is also simple: every person who has direct and repetitive contact with children and youth must be screened. Screening includes several steps and may look different in individual congregations. Here are items to consider when developing a screening policy.
Who is screened
A good policy clearly identifies those who will be screened. A church may develop different classes of volunteers and employees to determine the level and type of background check needed. People to include in the policy are those who have regular contact with youth, have a position of authority or supervision, have an opportunity to establish trust, and could have one-on-one contact with youth.
Define the type and level of background check required
Items to consider when determining which background check to use:
- Number and type of records accessed
- Geographic location (county, country, international)
- Length of history to search
- Quality of databases searched
- Check of state and national sex-offender websites
- Check of state child abuse registries
Several companies run background checks. The local Department of Human Services or Child Protection Agency is a good place to give a recommendation. The church’s insurance carrier may have a recommended company, and it may give a discount if run through the insurance company.
Meet with the potential employee or volunteer and ask open ended questions that encourage discussion. If an area of concern is uncovered, follow up with additional questions.
References provide additional information about individuals and help verify past experiences.
Establish criteria that trigger a review and disqualification for participation
Churches may have volunteers with different roles and responsibilities. These may result in different disqualification standards. For example, a helper in a Sunday school classroom may not need to meet the same standards as the teacher, who has more authority over the children. Disqualifiers may include:
- Past history of sexual victimization of children
- Conviction for any crime in which children were involved
- History of violence or sexually exploitative behavior
- Lying about criminal history
- Termination from a paid or volunteer position for misconduct with a child
Vetting individuals who work with children is not a one-and-done activity. Policies need to include a provision for ongoing background checks every one or two years. Occasional observation of individuals while they work with children is important. Look for red flags like excessive or unnatural interest in children’s activities or excessive touching.
Screening background checks may feel unloving to some; and it can feel uncomfortable. However, it is a very loving thing to keep children, a vulnerable population, safe. You can relieve some of the uncomfortable feeling by making the reasons for the policy well-known. Advertise that the church will perform a background check so members can take that into account before they offer to volunteer.
As Ronald Reagan famously said, “Trust but verify.”