Making Churches Safe for Children

Date Posted: 
Wednesday, May 3, 2017

By Annie Reilly

The idea started with a request: pastors wanted information about safe church policies. These policies have two goals: to protect members, especially children, from abuse, and to protect staff from false allegations of abuse.

“I kept hearing from pastors who were concerned about changing requirements with their insurance agencies and feeling overwhelmed,” says Abby Norton-Levering, Albany Synod ministries coordinator. “Most churches have some policy in place, but didn’t know if it was sufficient to comply with their insurance.”

But what started as a practical matter—to help churches navigate this piece of liability insurance—turned into a bigger conversation about safety, education, community, and compassion. In January, about 50 participants from across the Regional Synod of Albany gathered in Schenectady to be trained in the importance of child protection in their churches.

The event was led by staff from the Sexual Assault and Crime Victims Assistance Program at St. Peters Health Partners: director Lindsey Crusan-Muze and prevention educator Mike Fonda. They explained the services available for victims and families at local heath care centers. Fonda lead the group through a series of basic guidelines for keeping children safe, educating parents and leaders in preventing abuse, and spotting and responding to a child who shows signs of abuse.

Representatives from Emery and Webb, an insurance company specializing in covering churches and other nonprofits, also presented at the event. Tim McCarthy brought samples for safe church policies, volunteer applications, and reporting procedures. He looked at the policies that participants brought and fielded questions about “what if” scenarios.

Sexual assault and abuse are not comfortable topics to talk about. While churches are intended to be places where all of God’s children are welcome, that is not always the case. A quick scan of the news shows that churches have not consistently protected their most vulnerable members.

“As a leader, it is my responsibility to do everything that I can to make sure people of all ages feel welcome and safe in our community,” says Lindsey DeKruif, pastor of Helderberg Reformed Church in Guilderland Center. “Having a comprehensive policy in place that looks out for the safety of our youth and children helps to create a community in which all people can thrive.”

Participants in the Regional Synod of Albany safe church training left feeling empowered and excited to make meaningful plans of action for their communities. Throughout the day, it became clear that this is not only a practical consideration, but a moral and spiritual one as well.

“When I was called by the First Reformed Church of Schenectady, the church did its own background check on me,” says Jonathan Vanderbeck, an RCA minister with training in social work. “I was surprised to learn this is not standard practice [in the RCA]. As a social worker who has seen firsthand what a lack of background checking can do, I felt compelled after this safe church training to overture our classis to implement a policy of screening and background checking, to ensure the safety of the children and youth in our charge.”

Some participants in the safe church training acknowledged the difficulty of creating and implementing realistic child protection policies. Small churches that struggle to recruit volunteers can’t easily have two teachers in every classroom, a standard practice recommended by Emery and Webb. Other churches resist the idea of doing background checks because they are afraid of offending people.

“These are real challenges, but they shouldn’t stop us from doing what’s right,” says Norton-Levering. “The most important thing is for a congregation to examine their current practices and start some honest conversations. A journey in the right direction begins with the first step.”

Editor’s note: If your church would like resources on creating your own safe church policies and procedures, please contact Abby Norton-Levering at nortonlevering@gmail.com.

Annie Reilly is communication coordinator for the Regional Synod of Albany.

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