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Upholding Trust in the Religious Education Community

Tera Little and Laurel Amabile

Helping someone learn how to say “yes” to life, despite the pains and travails each of us experiences, is one of the most important gifts our Unitarian Universalist congregations offer. This “yes” is at the core of our lifespan religious education programs and we convey it in many ways, through sermons, small group ministry, our discussions in committee meetings, and religious education classes. “Yes” flows through the heart of our faith, calling on us to stand up, dig deep within ourselves, and let effervescent life emerge.

Many of our religious leaders find that another way to announce their “yes” is by setting up clear limitations and expectations, responsibility, and accountability. More and more of our congregations recognize the need to create and maintain clear safety requirements in which we leave no room for doubt in our expectations of healthy relationships and boundaries between adults and children and between adults and adults. We can’t leave to chance our interactions with the children in our church, assuming that everything will be all right because we are all good Unitarian Universalists. These safety requirements help us live out our collective covenant espoused in our Unitarian Universalist Principles that we share in our communities of faith.

Our Principles call us toward justice and right relationship, and we must live out this value internally with the people in our pews and classrooms. We place a high priority on including children and youth within our faith communities. Our religious education programs for children find myriad ways to help incorporate them and teach them about how our congregations work. Preschoolers go through the curriculum Chalice Children. Elementary school children learn about our UU Principles through curricula such as We Believe, and many of our middle school students complete a comprehensive Coming of Age program, where they learn in depth about our denomination, our rich history, and the colorful background and norms of their home congregation. This often culminates in the participant’s becoming a member of the congregation. The comprehensive lifespan sexuality education series Our Whole Lives offers excellent resources for five age levels—grades K–1, grades 4–6, grades 7–9, grades 10–12, and adult—on topics of body and gender awareness, healthy sexuality and relationships, respect for self and others, self-care, and abuse prevention.

Attention can also be given to promoting healthy and respectful relationships among children. Adults can model healthy interpersonal behaviors and educate children about peer issues like bullying and psychological and physical abuse. Sometimes this entails adult intervention when these hurtful behaviors occur in the faith community.

Our compelling programs for children and youth entail a high degree of responsibility for the adults working directly and peripherally with the young people. All of us in the congregation teach our children not just how to be Unitarian Universalists but perhaps more importantly, how to live in a Unitarian Universalist community, a community that gives to, cares for, critiques, affirms, questions, and blesses those within its fold.

Thus, for a people who expect their adults to be faith-keepers, trust-builders, and care-givers, it is easy to see why it is so important for us to be clear about how adults interact with children. Our responsibility to spiritually and emotionally nurture the children in our community is huge. With the stakes so high, we must not fail to guard them adequately against physical and emotional abuse. Will we safeguard against every perceivable abuse? This is not likely. However, we can significantly reduce the risk by creating and following preventative policies.

When we create explicit guidelines for appropriate behavior we define the values that are important to us as religious people. Our statements about safe relationships create a structure in which our religious community can thrive. Many congregations have already begun this important work. Perhaps you have done preliminary work in contacting your district office, the UUA, or your insurance company to look at sample safety policies and collect resources. Your congregation may have already completed such policies and working on revising and updating them. Wherever you are on this journey, we commend you. You are doing important work.

As a religious leader in your congregation, whether paid or volunteer, you are called to seek the truth and to speak the truth in love. Talking about appropriate behavior between adults and children, between youth and youth, and between adults and adults may feel difficult, especially when you have long-term volunteers and everyone knows everyone. You may feel as if people will view this as accusatory or trouble making. It is important to be aware that by creating and following through on such policies, you are generating a culture shift within your congregation. Do not ignore the power of this. Even by just beginning the process, you are fomenting a new way of doing things and elevating the level of professionalism, faith, and trust in the congregation.

Prevention

What do we mean when we say we want to create a safe religious education program for all ages? At the outset, this notion may feel overwhelming and you may not know exactly where to start. Many congregations have codified their safety policies and procedures. Samples from various congregations are included in the UUA Safety/ Abuse Clearinghouse Resource Packet (available through the UUA Lifespan Faith Development Department and the UUA Office of Ethics and Safety). Many UUA districts now have district safety policies. These are excellent places to begin. Reading through these policies provides a good overview of what types of issues need to be covered. In addition, there are many places on the Internet where you can find in-depth information about creating a safe religious education environment. One example is, Church Mutual Insurance Company, an insurer of many Unitarian Universalist congregations and districts.

We must keep our children and youth physically, emotionally, and sexually safe. Looking out for their physical safety means that we ensure that universal precautions are followed when handling bodily fluids (see the sample policy on the UUA web site), and that driver safety measures are in place for all field trip drivers. Reducing risk means that the playground equipment follows all state requirements and that regular emergency evacuation drills are routine. Reducing risk and ensuring safety requires an audit of the facilities to make certain there is nothing in the physical space that can cause harm.

Unitarian Universalist congregations often share their space with the community. In these instances we must be vigilant about safety in order to deter possible litigation due to negligence. In one congregation a community group arranged with the church office to rent the religious education program space for an evening program. After they had used the space, a member of the group contacted the religious educator and informed her that her child fell from the playground equipment. The child was not seriously injured, but in researching the new recommended standards for public playgrounds, the caller informed the religious educator that the church playground did not meet those standards.

The religious educator handled the situation immediately, which is important in responding to any safety issue. She first discovered that the playground had been built before the current playground standards had been changed; because the playground did not meet the standards it was a potential liability issue. The religious educator immediately reported the problem to the minister, staff, and nursery school staff, who quickly started work to bring the playground up to current standards.

Fortunately there was no legal action involved in this incident, but the congregation learned several important lessons. When a community group or anyone else who is not familiar uses the playground and an accident happens, the congregation must be responsive to the situation and follow up with all necessary calls and procedures, documenting how the incident is handled. The leaders learned that rental groups need to be informed about all playground safety rules and those rules need to be posted in a visible space and verbally discussed with the rental group. The church needs to know in advance that rental groups who have children’s activities will also procure adequate supervision. The congregation handled this situation well by being responsive and proactive.

Congregation leaders can be proactive with accident prevention by conducting a thorough facilities safety inspection and assessment process. A number of resources are available for this purpose, including an online playground safety booklet available on the Church Mutual website and safety and inspection checklists that you can buy from the Christian Ministries Resources Webstore.

Creating a space that is emotionally and sexually safe for children and youth is more complex. There are personnel issues about who is appropriate to work with children and youth; decisions about how the workers are screened; what is reportable; and who communicates with outside authorities when necessary.

Volunteers

As a religious professional, elected official, or volunteer staff in a congregation, it falls to you to ensure that all children and youth in your congregation are adequately protected against potential harm. Too often in our churches we are hungry for volunteers to work with children and youth, and when an enthusiastic person presents herself, we rush to get her involved in the program, glad to have filled another volunteer slot. While there is no failsafe way to ensure you will have appropriate volunteers, there are several steps you can take to maximize your chances of finding the best people possible.

To reduce the risk of abuse; protect children, youth, and adults; and promote health and safety in your congregation, follow these basic guidelines:

  • Recruit religious education volunteers who have been members of your congregation for at least six months. This allows individuals and families to gain an understanding of Unitarian Universalism and integrate themselves into the life of the Congregation.
  • Orient and train all religious education volunteers in the religious education program, policies, and procedures by providing a packet of materials that includes a yearly calendar, child and faith development information, suggestions for religious education teachers, education and support opportunities, and religious education safety policies and procedures.
  • Have all church staff and volunteers working with children and youth review and sign a copy of the UUA Code of Ethics for Adults Working with Children and Youth (every year) and keep signed copies on file.
  • Codify and make official (by governing board sanction or vote) any policies and procedures in place related to safety.
  • Institute Universal Precautions for infectious diseases, handling of bodily fluids, etc. (especially nursery and toddler caregivers).
  • Establish an emergency evacuation procedure (schedule practice drills at least once a year).
  • Clearly define behavior and safety expectations for children, youth, and adults, both inside and outside of the church building (such as playground safety procedures).
  • Ask parents to sign a medical release form for all off-site field trips or church-sponsored activities and provide copies to assigned drivers or chaperones.
  • Require written applications and conduct personal reference checks for mentors of youth or volunteers who work with children or youth in a congregation-sponsored role outside of the church, such as Coming of Age mentors.
  • Review your congregation’s legal responsibilities regarding equipment, property, and personal safety.
  • Inspect your insurance policy to determine who empowers all non-ordained staff and/or volunteers in their scopes of responsibility. Does the governing board?
  • Know how claims are handled in the event of a playground accident or a car accident involving a staff or volunteer driver.
  • Consult with a lawyer and your congregation’s insurance representative for further clarification and recommendations.
  • Contact your state officials about the existence of “Good Samaritan” provisions that may protect volunteers during their service to your organization.
  • Document incidents or reports of injuries or accidents and keep them on file.

The following primary screening procedure should be used in the recruiting/ screening/ hiring process for all applicants and congregation workers, full-time or part-time, compensated or volunteer, including professional religious leaders (ministers, religious educators, and music directors):

  • Give the applicant a full job description
  • Keep application forms on file. These forms must include information such as personal history, church history, educational background, and work and volunteer experience.
  • Require two or three references from each applicant and check them, preferably by phone but email is acceptable.
  • Create forms a summarizing the personal interview with the applicant.
  • Require each applicant to complete a consent form for a criminal background check.
  • Obtain confirmation that the criminal background check is complete.
  • Keep all of these records in a confidential file once you have made the hire.

A secondary screening procedure may be used for occasional volunteer workers who are church members for at least six months. Ask applicants to complete an application and voluntary disclosure statement, conduct a personal interview, and institute and enforce a clear church policy that at least two adults will be present with children and youth at all times.

It is time for us to take the role of volunteering with children and youth and adults seriously and to send a message that we no longer have an open door policy for volunteer positions. We want the absolute best people working with the entire population in our congregations. Many other organizations have professionalized the process of hiring volunteers. Our congregations must do this as well.

Many abusers look for situations in which they are isolated and able to prey more easily on their victims. Precautions can include ensuring that classroom doors have windows to increase visibility. A policy that at least two adults will always be in the room with children also reduces the risk of possible abuse and claims of negligence. This practice also protects the adult volunteers against false allegations made by a child or youth.

Application forms, personal reference forms, and background checks help to weed out undesirable applicants. Congregations may wince at this idea because recruiting volunteers is a monumental task already and asking for more information may discourage potential volunteers. But congregations that go to these extra lengths do not encounter massive resistance; rather they find that potential volunteers are thankful that the congregation is taking its role seriously and are happy to provide the information. When your congregation institutes these screening procedures, it is essential to state clearly how the information is to be filed, who has access to the files and information, and how and with whom it will be shared. These policies should be shared with all prospective volunteers. See the UUA web site for sample policies; an application for paid or volunteer employment; a screening authorization form, including disclosures and disclaimers; authorization and release forms, and a reference check form.

Criminal background checks may be a contentious issue for some members of the congregation who are concerned about civil liberties issues. It is important to remind people that a criminal record check and perhaps a driving record check is necessary if the volunteer will be driving minors during church events. Remind them that the checks are for the safety of the children. Many insurance companies contend that background checks are an expected part of any risk management plan and should not be ignored.

Some people cite cost as another reason for not using background checks. There is a wide range of fees for screening services—ranging from $3.50 to over $150.00 for the most comprehensive. Searches limited to one state are less expensive than national searches. Many services allow you to determine the depth and breadth of the search. Some people suggest limiting a background check to the state level if a potential volunteer has lived in the state for ten or more years. Other congregations mandate national searches for all paid staff, regardless of their time living in the state. Your state may have its own background check requirements for organizations that recruit people to work with children and youth. Make sure your congregation is in compliance. Check with a local attorney, your church’s insurance agent, and local law enforcement officials to help you understand what information you need to procure.

Even with all the compelling evidence for why your congregation should institute background checks, leadership may decide that they are not ready to take that step. One precaution you might consider is the use of voluntary disclosure forms, which also act as a protection for the church and its members. These forms do not protect against liability or negligence claims like background screening, but voluntary disclosure forms offer a degree of assurance that a potential volunteer does not have red flags in his or her background. The American Camping Association, a national organization committed to excellence and safety in camp experiences, offers these forms through their online bookstore at www.acacamps.org.

Once you have the appropriate screening system in place, you still need to make sure you have written procedures for how to handle reporting abuse, whether the abuse happens within or outside the congregation. It is not a question of if, but when you will need this information. Paid and volunteer staff need to be prepared and trained to deal with a disclosure immediately and effectively and in a way that puts the least strain possible on both the person making the disclosure and the person receiving it. Responsible and careful attention to the situation is an extremely important ministry in the congregation.

Responding to a Disclosure of Abuse

When you become aware of an abusive situation, review your state’s requirements on reporting suspected or known incidents of abuse to local police or child protective services and create a plan for complying with the legal reporting requirements and making statements to the media, congregation, or other officials. The reporting policy should provide clear instructions for congregation workers on how to recognize indicators of abuse or violations of established safety guidelines. Congregation workers must know who to go to within the organization when making a report, so that appropriate follow-up takes place.

Deciding these things in advance of a potentially harmful situation is crucial. Take for example the following situation: The religious educator receives a report from a congregant that he saw the mother of a young child in the preschool room handle her child roughly and with what seemed to him extreme frustration and anger. The young mother was serving as one of the youth advisors and the observer had a son in the youth group and was also a caseworker for the state’s child protection services. The congregant was shocked at the intensity of behavior and grew fearful for the child’s well-being and resolved to report the incident. The congregant who observed the situation informs the religious educator that she has reported the incident to the county Department of Social Services.

After consulting with the senior minister, the religious educator calls the mother to let her know that she is aware of the report. She also calls the county caseworker and identifies herself as the leader of the congregation where the incident was observed and says that she is in contact with the family. The religious educator also makes contact with the children’s father in an effort to keep that relationship open. Eventually the mother pulls herself out of the church but the father and children remained involved. There are some procedures and policies that were put in place prior to the incident, but they are not comprehensive. Along the way the religious educator writes up incident reports, keeps files of what transpires, and maintains close communication with the senior minister.

Every volunteer or staff person in your church needs to know who is considered a mandated reporter in the instance of suspected abuse. Every state has slightly different variations and you need to verify the requirements. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services keeps this information up to date. Once you know who the mandated reporters are, it is vital to clearly communicate this information at every volunteer and staff training.

In addition, you need to create a comprehensive plan for how the reports are filed and by whom. Again, each state differs on how the reporting must be done. It is the role of church leadership to ensure the proper procedures are made readily available to the volunteers and staff.

As your congregation begins working on these policies, some may ask, “What do we mean by child abuse?” The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) provides federal guidelines that states must incorporate into their statutory definitions of child abuse and neglect. As applied to reporting statutes, these definitions describe the acts and conditions that determine the grounds for state intervention in the protection of a child’s well-being. Many states provide separate definitions for physical abuse, neglect, sexual abuse, and emotional maltreatment. Your staff and volunteers must be aware of current state definitions. A local attorney or your insurance company is a good resource for current definitions.

It is imperative to create a comprehensive plan for screening workers, supervising workers, and reporting suspected abuse that is easy to understand. Our response and involvement in these situations must be intentional. Part of the responsibility of a paid staff is to ensure that every volunteer with children and youth is adequately educated and trained in the expected procedures. This should happen annually because the state definitions or expectations may change and you need to ensure that every volunteer and paid staff person fully understands his or her responsibilities in suspected abuse situations. It behooves congregations to also educate the parents of children and youth and any other interested congregants. All church workers must be fully informed about their responsibilities in order to avoid legal action or criminal penalties for failing to submit reports properly.

In many congregations the Our Whole Lives program is taught to one or many age levels. These comprehensive sexuality education curricula for children and youth address issues of sexual abuse. This proactive prevention education gives children and youth information about how to recognize, avoid, and report abuse. Our Whole Lives teachers, youth advisors, and professional religious leaders need to be aware of the potential for disclosures from children and youth during Our Whole Lives classes or youth group activities. Reporting procedures within the congregation, and if necessary outside the congregation, need to be understood and followed by all religious education workers.

In the Pacific Southwest District, a large part of programming involves six camps for young people in grades two through twelve. A growing part of the district’s commitment to excellence in these programs has been to create safety requirements that mandate screening and reporting procedures. Inevitably a young person will disclose an incident of domestic abuse during the camping season. This disclosure is almost always given to a youth or young adult cabin counselor. Campers become close to the counselors and feel safe in confiding this type of information to them. Having a protocol in place for making reports has been a blessing because it enables the camp program to continue uninterrupted while the designated senior staff person makes the necessary reports. The chaplain and the cabin counselor are able to work with the victim, reassuring them that they will be okay and letting them know what to expect next.

What if an incident of abuse occurs in your congregation, facility, or site? First, treat all allegations seriously, with care and respect for the privacy and rights of the individuals involved. Implement your response plan, which should include contact with the congregation’s insurance carrier, consultation with your attorney, full cooperation with civil authorities, documentation and prepared position statement about your congregation’s awareness of the problems of child abuse, your concern for victims, and the risk reduction and safety measures your congregation has in place to protect children.

Time and experience have taught us the importance of ministering to those who receive information from the victim. The reactions can range from disbelief, horror, sadness, anger, and a loss of faith when they realize that even Unitarian Universalists sometimes treat each other without respecting the inherent worth and dignity of each individual.

As your congregation goes through the process of creating safety policies, it is important to think about how it will respond to all those affected by abuse. While it is crucial that all appropriate reporting to state or county agencies is carried out, it is also important to ensure that the spiritual and emotional needs of all involved are taken care of in a loving, respectful, and healing way. One way to do this is to develop a team that is responsible for ministering to people affected by the disclosure of abuse. This team, ideally including a counselor or therapist, works closely with the religious educator and the minister to facilitate a group session, allowing everyone to share their feelings constructively. These people need to know they are supported in a compassionate way by the congregation’s leadership.

In some circumstances, charged or convicted child sex offenders are active members of congregations and may pose a risk to children or youth. These are challenging situations to deal with, requiring a great deal of thoughtful consideration on the part of professional and lay leaders. In some cases, if a known child sex offender enters or chooses to remain a part of the congregation, clear boundaries are established for that person to take part in congregation life while maintaining the protection of children and youth. These boundaries, terms, and restrictions are outlined in writing and often referred to as limited access agreements.” (See sample agreements on the UUA web site at www.uua.org/cde/ethics/resources.) The congregation’s professional and/or lay leaders should review these documents with the offender and carefully implement and enforce them if the offender agrees to abide by them.

As your congregation delves more into how to sustain families and others in your faith community in instances of abuse, you can consider implementing educational ministries on the topic, such as how to comfort families affected by abuse, ways children and youth can protect themselves, and the wide array of community resources for victims and survivors. Programs such as these can be carried out through adult religious education programs, special forums, district or cluster workshops, or other venues.

The minister and religious educator will most likely be directly involved with working with the family of the victim. In many instances, the congregation’s policy is to inform the family when a report of abuse has been given to the authorities. This opens the door of honest and direct communication, allowing the religious educator to be in contact with the family so he or she can offer assistance and guidance in finding help or other resources.

Equipping and training program staff, volunteers, and participants with information and resources on creating safe congregations, risk management, and abuse prevention is essential. Ongoing efforts to inform, train, and model safe practices and ethical behavior may include giving paid and volunteer religious education staff, parents, and congregational leaders the following information or documents:

  • basic information on safety, risk management, and abuse potential
  • procedures to document and report incidents or suspicion of abuse by volunteers and paid staff
  • issues and limits of confidentiality when dealing with minors
  • suggestions for professional staff strategies and procedures for handling incidents or suspicion of abuse
  • disclosures of reported abuse, including the process for how families of victims are handled and ministered to
  • process for handling and ministering to the accused, including drafting limited access agreements for those who offend or pose a risk to others in the context of the congregation

Love is a central tenant of our faith. In our quest to make our religious homes safe and healthy, we must remember this is ministry. As congregational leaders we must remember our responsibility to minister to the needs of those present in our faith communities, those vulnerable to injury or abuse, those who are injured or abused and their family members, those who respond to or report suspected abuse, those serving as volunteers with children and youth, and yes, even those who may abuse or cause harm to others. Our faith calls us to love and care for one another in creating safe congregations.

Read Next>> A Sex Offender in Church

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Last updated on Friday, April 22, 2011.

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