Child predators are looking for opportunities to gain trust in order to embed themselves into relationships and communities. Within these relationships, they are looking for opportunities to abuse children and youth. This type of offender uses relationships, positions of authority, and the trust of parents and organizations to gain access to their victims. These offenders are looking for opportunities where they can be isolated with their victims. This creates an environment where they can do harm and keep their victims compliant without using actual, physical force.
In order to combat the predatory behaviors of these offenders, churches must evaluate children’s and youth ministries and create policies and best practices that lower the risk by decreasing the opportunity for isolated interactions with children and students. So, in addition to screening practices for volunteers and employees, child protection policies should address the interactions of employees and volunteers with children and youth.
Thinking through interactions between adults and children
One of the first things to consider is your expectation and standard for interactions between adult workers and children. The main goals in formulating policy in this area are to first, limit (and even eliminate when possible) one-on-one interactions and second, to set expectations of behavior in a code of conduct that establishes community norms for appropriate and inappropriate behavior.
The grooming that takes place leading up to abuse, as well as the abuse itself requires isolated incidences of interaction with the victim. By limiting these interactions, we increase safety and protect children. Most experts agree that the rule should be a two-adult rule, meaning that all interactions, classes, and events should have two adults (unrelated) present at all times. This should be standard expectation in your children’s and youth ministry.
An exercise that I like to use with youth-serving organizations is to make a list of all of the potential situations where it is not feasible to have two adults present at all times and all one-on-one encounters. Take the time to discuss how you could alter the situation in order for it to meet the standard, and if not, what will be the approach to make the situation safer and less isolated. There are some situations that may be necessary for one-on-one interactions, and in these situations, the organization must take steps to make sure the interaction is necessary to be one-on-one and look for ways to make it observable and interruptible.
One example of this is where there is private tutoring in a school or discipleship/counseling of a youth. These are events that require some privacy, yet they must maintain accountability and observability. It is important to have spaces that allow for the conversations to occur, but also allow for others to see such as glass panes on windows, doors ajar, and accountability measures like supervisors and others knowing the meetings are taking place and being present in hallways and buildings to observe and interrupt at any point. Another approach that some organizations take is to have a ratio rule when there cannot be two adults present—there must be 3-5 students present and together at all times. Again, the major concern is isolation, so look for ways to limit the places where individuals are isolated in one-on-one situations.
As you think through interactions that occur in children’s and youth ministry, make sure that you think through texting and social media interactions. With the expansion of technology and social media platforms, there are endless ways for youth to interact under the radar of detection by parents. This also means that predators can be savvy and use different means of direct messaging to get to their victims with parents and church leaders being naively unaware. Decide how your church will address social interaction via the internet between youth and adult leaders.
Some organizations have a blanket policy of no private communication through texting or social media. This is a good stance; however, it’s very hard to monitor and enforce. My recommendation is to approach this with a strict rule, but to also pair it with education for parents on the best ways to monitor and be aware of what their children are doing online. In addition, some ministries have decided that all communications must either include the parent or be a group message. Whatever stance you take, it is imperative that you educate your parents about your policies so that they are aware and will be another source of accountability.
Finally, in thinking about adult to child/youth ratios, make sure that you consider transportation and overnight trips. There should not be any one-on-one situations in cars or sleeping rooms. Adults who serve in capacities that require driving or overnight trips should receive the highest amount of scrutiny and oversight.
Developing a code of conduct
After reviewing and addressing one-on-one interactions and ratios, children’s and youth ministries should develop a code of conduct that sets forth appropriate and inappropriate behaviors. The code of conduct should be tailored to your church and ministry area based on your activities and events. The code of conduct will incorporate your standards regarding one-on-one interactions, as well as numbers of persons present rules. In addition, the code of conduct should cover appropriate types of behavior that are encouraged, as well as inappropriate behavior that is prohibited. In children’s and youth ministry it is important to keep appropriate touching or affection observable and in the open.
While a code of conduct should be specific to your organization, the organization Darkness to Light has a sample that they adapted from the YMCA that is helpful as you consider what types of things to include. Again, just like other protection policies, the policies must be what you live by and must be communicated to parents and community members. Remember that heightened awareness within your community creates more community members that can help hold the church and others accountable which, in turn, protects children and youth from harm.
In conclusion, creating good policy, including a code of conduct, takes much collaboration and input. I encourage you to take the time needed to create and revise policies that are good for your church and ministry. Collaborate with child experts, law enforcement, ministry leaders, and other youth-serving organizations in order to make your policy as robust and protective as possible. Your policy must be communicated and reviewed with members of your community, and in doing so, should seek to instill responsibility for looking out for others and keeping children and youth safe from harm. And finally, leadership, be quick to listen and truly hear those who come to you with concerns.
This is part four of a five-part series. (Read: Parts one and two and three). Visit caringwell.com to learn more about the Caring Well Challenge and help make your church safe for survivors and safe from abuse.
The content of this post is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect the current law in your jurisdiction. No information contained in this post should be construed as legal advice. Please seek legal counsel from an attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.