Safer Places

Protecting Vulnerable Persons from Abuse and Other Mistreatment and Protecting Resources from Loss or Mismanagement through Education and Training, Self-Disclosure, and Background, Credit and Reference Checks

It's important for the work of the church that safer places be created and continually maintained at all levels in the RCA, for both the people and resources involved.

This "Safer Places" resource describes ways in which safer places can be created and maintained. They include education and training; background, credit, and reference checks; and self-disclosure. Leaders at all assembly levels in the RCA are encouraged to use this resource whenever and wherever appropriate in light of the work they do and the people they serve.

This is not simply a resource about background checks to learn about past problems. There's more to creating safer places than that. Creating safer places also involves educating and training workers (paid and volunteer) to reduce the possibility of future problems. Similarly, this is not simply a resource about reducing potential harm to children. It encourages actions that may reduce potential harm to the elderly, the disabled, and anyone else who may be vulnerable. And finally, this resource is not only about reducing the potential for abuse or mistreatment of people. It is also about reducing the risk of loss or mismanagement of resources that have been entrusted to RCA assemblies and agencies.

Education and Training

Educating and training people who work with those who may be vulnerable--children, the elderly, people with disabilities--is an important part of the overall process of creating safer places. It helps avoid problems before they arise by providing advice regarding such wide-ranging topics as (a) the appropriate design and layout of facilities, (b) proper locations (and number of leaders and supervisors) for activities, (c) application forms and screening processes for employees and volunteers, (d) appropriate behavior for employees and volunteers, (e) consent forms for parents and guardians, (f) behavior patterns to watch for in leaders and supervisors as well as children and others who may be vulnerable, and (g) proper methods for reporting suspicions or concerns.

Education and training people who work with financial resources is also important. It too may help avoid problems before they arise by providing advice regarding such things as budgeting, contingency planning, accounting methods, record keeping, audits, data management and security, internal controls, restricted and designated gifts, how to safeguard offerings, and separation of financial responsibilities and operations.

Education and training materials (on the foregoing topics as well as others) are available from a number of sources. The following are just a few of them.

  1. Church Mutual Insurance Company offers resources through the "Safety Resources" section of its website. Note in particular the links labeled "Background Screening," Child and Youth Sexual Abuse," and "Crime Prevention" (in particular its "Finances" and "Fraud" subheadings).
  2. Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Company offers resources through its online Safety Library. Note in particular its resources regarding "Administration, Staff and Finance" and "Children and Youth."
  3. Guide One Insurance offers resources through its online Safety Resources, including "Financial Safeguards," "Children and Youth Safety," and "Transportation Safeguards." Its customers also have access to additional resources on its Safechurch.com website.
  4. ChurchLawAndTax.com--an affiliate of Christianity Today--offers educational resources on all the topics addressed in this resource: screening; protecting youth, the elderly, and others who may be vulnerable; financial impropriety; and more. A paid membership is required in order to access the resources.
  5. Stop It Now offers links to guidebooks and other prevention tools, including resources and tools offered by third parties.
  6. Ministry Safe offers video and printed resources--some free, some for a fee--that include child sexual abuse training, policies and procedures, application forms, reference check forms, interview forms, and other instructional documents. The resources include a tool to monitor the initial training and periodic reviews by both employees and volunteers.
  7. Risk Manager offers a comprehensive set of risk management resources, one portion of which relates to youth protection ("Understanding and Identifying Child Abuse," "Preventing Child Abuse," and "Responding to and Reporting Child Abuse").

As you can see, in many instances these resources are available from or through insurance companies. There's a reason for that. If a claim of misconduct arises, the insurer may be required to defend it. Consequently, the insurer has an incentive to see that its customers have appropriate training programs in place. Check with your assembly's insurer to see if it has training resources that you may use. Chances are that it does, and by using them your assembly may qualify for some type of premium reduction.

Self-Disclosure

"Self-disclosure" is a process by which prospective workers (paid or volunteer) answer questions about themselves--questions that you may consider relevant, given the type of work he or she may be doing. Click here to see a sample questionnaire. Tailor the sample form to fit the particular situation you are dealing with. At first glance the questions may seem unduly intrusive, but the topics addressed are just the sorts of things that responsible leaders should want to know about. Admittedly, a person could respond untruthfully, but the mere act of asking the questions should make it clear that your assembly takes these matters very seriously.

Credit, Background, and Reference Checks

Another way to create safer places is to check the background and present circumstances of individuals who may deal with finances or who have contact with people who are vulnerable. The most common way to do this is through a background check. For those who will work with finances, consider a credit check as well, because it's wise to know whether the person working with a church's finances is under any difficult financial circumstances of his or her own. In each instance, the check should show whether the person being checked has circumstances (present or prior) that warrant further investigation.

Before proceeding, it is wise to obtain an acknowledgment and release form from the person who is being checked. (Tailor the sample form to your particular situation, and consult with a local attorney to ensure that the form is appropriate for your jurisdiction.)

It is quite common for both checks--background and credit--to be provided by the same company as part of a "package" of resources. Companies that offer such checks include the following:

Many other services are available as well. The ones noted above are mentioned because they seem to have particular programs or services geared to nonprofit or faith-based organizations.

Typically the service provider offers guidance regarding who to check and what to check for. In each instance this will depend upon the person's role and responsibilities. For example, Safe Hiring Solutions offers different options for employees and volunteers.

Finally, as noted before, check with your agency's or assembly's insurer. As one who may be called upon to defend a claim, it may be willing to recommend particular service providers. Additionally, in some instances insurers have identified their preferred company, or may have secured special pricing arrangements that your agency or assembly could benefit from. For example:

  1. Church Mutual Insurance Company has selected First Advantage as its "preferred background screening vendor" and describes its arrangement with First Advantage as including "a substantially reduced price through a unique partnership" with Church Mutual.
  2. Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Company states on its website that it "feels confident working with" Safe Hiring Solutions and Protect My Ministry. Brotherhood Mutual also states that its policy holders receive a discount from Safe Hiring Solutions.

As for reference checks, the simple fact is that it can't hurt to check references provided by the individual, simply to find out what others think.

When to Check 
Here are guidance and suggestions regarding when checks should be conducted.

Candidates for Ministry: Checks should be made on candidates for ministry as a condition of their enrollment as such by the classis. Given the variety of ministries to which the candidate may be called, the checks should include a background check, a credit check, and the completion of a self-disclosure form.

Reception of Ministers into Classis Membership: Whenever a minister is received as a member of a classis, whether from another classis or another denomination, the receiving classis should make a background check and credit check and should require the completion of a self-disclosure form.

Commencement of Employment/Service: Checks should be made on employees and volunteers prior to (and as condition to) the commencement of their employment or service, respectively. The types of checks made should be consistent with the nature of the employment or volunteer work. In the case of a minister of Word and sacrament, checks should be made prior to the classis's approval of a consistory's call to a minister. If as a part of the call the minister is being received from another classis, the checks may have already occurred in connection with that transfer. If the minister is transferring from one church to another in the same classis, then this will not be the case.

Given the variety of activities to which a minister may be called, as well as the special place of authority and trust the minister may occupy, checks should include a criminal background check, a credit check, and the completion of a self-disclosure form.

As for volunteers, it's good practice is to establish a period of time that a volunteer must be an active participant in congregational life (but not necessarily a church member) before he or she may work with children, youth, or others who may be vulnerable. Many organizations use a period of six months, and as a result this practice has become commonly known as the "six month rule."

Periodic Checks after Commencement of Employment/Service: Following the commencement of employment or volunteer service, it is prudent to check again occasionally. How often? There's no magic time period. When deciding on one, consider the custom and practice of others in your community who are similarly situated. For example, if the person being checked is working with youth or driving a bus, what is the practice at the local schools? If the person is working with people who are elderly or disabled, what is the practice at local health care facilities? If the person is working with finances, what is the practice at local banks? If you are unable to establish a community standard, consider establishing a time period that works for your organization. For example, consider a time period that is compatible with terms of office for consistory members. Alternatively, ask your assembly's insurance company what it prefers.

How Far Back to Check 
The services that perform the checks may provide guidance on this in terms of what any particular "industry standard" might be. Nevertheless, given the reason for conducting the checks--establishing and maintaining safer places for youth, others who are vulnerable, and the resources that have been entrusted to the church--consider checking as far back as reliable records will allow.

The Purpose and Limits of Checks, and the Risks of Not Checking
Finally, a few words about why and how checks are done, what checks can and cannot accomplish, and the risks of not checking.

(a) Checks are not done to reduce the risk of liability to the church. The main purpose of conducting checks is to reduce the risk of harm to youth, others who are vulnerable, and the resources that have been entrusted to the church. Reduced risk of liability may be a natural by-product of conducting checks, but it is not the main reason for conducting them.

(b) Obtain the written consent of the person being checked. Typically the company conducting the check will have a preferred consent form for you to use, and it likely will request additional information that will aid with the check process (such as the person's date of birth, Social Security number, prior and current employment and residential addresses, and other names by which the person has been known).

(c) Make sure the results of checks are used fairly and impartially. This should reduce the likelihood of claims of discrimination or "disparate impact" on particular classes of individuals.

(d) Education and training, background and credit checks, and self-disclosure may help reduce the risk of bad things happening, but they will not eliminate them. Consequently, even with all of the foregoing in place, your assembly's leadership must always be vigilant--watching for situations where the risk of bad conduct is present and taking reasonable steps to eliminate these situations.

(e) And finally, with the increased attention on the importance of safer places, as well as the many resources that are available to help churches and other agencies and assemblies to conduct checks, the risks of not checking (mainly in terms of lost trust, but in terms of potential liability as well) are enormous--especially if other churches, agencies, and assemblies are conducting checks. Simply put, those who check will be setting the standard and showing that it can be done, and those who do not will be left in the unenviable position of having to explain why they didn't do the same.

The Work of the Church

The RCA Statement of Mission and Vision

The Reformed Church in America is a fellowship of congregations called by God and empowered by the Holy Spirit to be the very presence of Jesus Christ in the world.

Our shared task is to equip congregations for ministry--a thousand churches in a million ways doing one thing--following Christ in mission, in a lost and broken world so loved by God.

OUR VISION

Imagine...

Laity and pastors unleashed, hungry for ministry; congregations mission-minded and inviting, authentic and healing, growing and multiplying, alert to the opportunities around them.

Imagine...

Classes and synods as communities of nurture and vision--accountable, responsible, sustained by prayer, alive to the Spirit.

Imagine...

A denomination, locally oriented, globally connected, that prays in many languages and beholds the face of Christ in every face; a denomination renewed and renewing, raising up leaders, always directing its resources toward the front lines of ministry.

Imagine...

Hurts being healed, the lost being found, the hungry being fed, peace healing brokenness, hope replacing despair, lives transformed by the love of Jesus Christ.

Imagine...

The Reformed Church in America, engaging the world.

LIVING OUT THE VISION

This vision will be lived out...

By congregations focused for ministry--creative, confident, healing, and radically attentive to the world outside its doors.

By consistories selected more for ministry than management, attuned to the Spirit, eager and equipped to serve.

By ministers of Word and sacrament open to dream, prepared to lead, willing to risk.

By classes that are empowering and proactive, living in communion, each accountable to all, and all to Christ.

By synods and staff that funnel resources to the local church, and keep us connected to the larger church.

By all the people of the RCA, a network of relationships, a fellowship that celebrates its gifts and confesses its failures, and where the ministries of all are valued and cherished.

* * * * *

Living out the RCA Statement of Mission and Vision calls for efforts at every level in the RCA. Each assembly and agency in the RCA is involved in, and bears some degree of responsibility for, this work.

Among other things, the RCA's Book of Church Order ascribes to the General Synod (and the General Synod Council as the body that administers the affairs of the Reformed Church in America between the sessions of the General Synod) responsibility for exercising a general superintendence over the interests and concerns of the whole church.

Regional synods exercise a general superintendence over the interests and concerns of the classes within their bounds. Classes, in turn, exercise a general superintendence over their enrolled ministers and over the interests and concerns of the churches within their bounds, and are responsible for the enforcement of the requirements of the Government of the RCA.

They are also responsible for exercising original and appellate supervisory power over the acts, proceedings, and decisions of the boards of elders and consistories, both in temporal matters and in those relating to Christian discipline. And finally, consistories--as the governing bodies of local churches--serve and supervise local churches by considering the needs of each church's local community and the world and then instituting and recognizing ministries that are responsive to those needs and that express the congregation's faithfulness to the ministry to which Christ calls the local church.