This article was published in the ACSI Legislative Update Newsletter Volume 31, Issue 1, Fall 2020. Republished with permission.
Abuse of children and other vulnerable persons is always tragic, to be closely guarded against on any level. For nonprofit organizations like churches, schools, and social service providers that care for vulnerable individuals, it is imperative that such organizations use strong protective measures. For optimal personal safety and organizational risk management, these measures warrant careful development, board approval, a written policy document provided to all workers, and implementation through training and other follow-through. An effective abuse protection policy can significantly reduce the risk to vulnerable individuals and the organization, and provide a safe framework in which the nonprofit can care for at-risk persons.
Key Ingredients in Abuse Prevention and Protection Policies
An effective abuse prevention and protection policy should contain the following key overarching elements.
- Purpose. As an initial matter, the policy should articulate the organization’s concern and proper care for the children and other vulnerable persons served.
- Scope. The policy may cover not only minor children but also the elderly and other adults who lack the physical or mental capacity to protect themselves (collectively “vulnerable persons”).
- Goals. In addition, the policy should set forth clear goals, such as to protect others and prevent harm, to provide guidelines for staff and volunteers (so that they too can be protected, against potential allegations of harm), and to create a compassionate environment including “zero tolerance” for abuse.
- Context. The policy can – and should – be closely tailored to the organization’s culture, programs, and even facility space, but with these and the following common aspects.
These elements may be expressed differently depending on an organization’s particular context and goals. For example, a church that seeks to provide children-related activities for its congregants may wish to articulate its Scriptural foundation along the following lines: “As responsible persons entrusted with caring for others, what can we do together to multiply God’s blessings, to express His love, and to fulfill our duties as good shepherds or stewards of his people?” Within such caring environments, other concerns such as effective programming and risk minimization can likewise be addressed.
Worker Screening and Oversight
- Qualifications. The policy needs to provide for effective screening of all workers, both paid staff and volunteers. Staff likely will be more closely scrutinized than volunteers, and adult volunteers more so than teenage volunteers. Generally speaking, one of the most effective deterrents to abuse by volunteers is reportedly to require worker applicants to participate regularly in a nonprofit’s programs for six months before serving vulnerable persons. If an organization thus does nothing else preventative than implement this requirement, it may nonetheless dramatically reduce the risk of abuse. Other important screening safeguards include requiring an application, performing background criminal checks, conducting interviews, and checking references. All screening materials should be securely stored to protect confidential information. Applicants should also sign consent forms authorizing the background screening.
- Documentation. Worker information forms should complement the abuse prevention and protection policy, such as a worker application, background screening forms, participant waiver and consent forms (tailored as appropriate for specific events), incident reports, and driver safety forms.
- Supervision. Worker supervision and behavior fall within the core of an organization’s program functions, with the aim of achieving optimal safety through clear and helpful guidelines. Overall, worker-vulnerable person ratios needed to be established, with small children obviously needing closer supervision than older children. Minimum supervisory ratios should not be satisfied by workers who are related by blood or marriage.
- Training and Protocols. All workers need training that is appropriate to the organization’s program activities, including abuse prevention and protection protocols. Inappropriate physical touch and behavior must be prohibited, and providing specific examples may be helpful (e.g., diaper policy, bathroom protocol, no kissing, no foul language, no bullying). Special program aspects may warrant further attention, such as safety requirements for playground areas, field trips and transportation. Taking unauthorized pictures or videos should also be prohibited.
In maintaining these protective measures, the organization’s leadership should embrace strong accountability measures, attentiveness to special areas of risk and safety, and a keen understanding as to their own organization’s particular needs and culture. Depending on the organization’s size and programs, it may be helpful to utilize an abuse prevention committee for accountability and quality control. Sharing information about the existence, importance, and key elements of an organization’s abuse prevention policy – such as through brochures or program handbooks - may also significantly help congregants, families in child care programs, and other participants to better appreciate the organization’s dedication to wholeheartedly and effectively care for others.
Reporting Requirements and Procedures
Worker reporting of suspected abuse constitutes a sad but critically important aspect of caring for vulnerable persons. If and when abuse is suspected, it is important that a nonprofit’s caregivers understand both what they are required to do, and how they are required to do it.
- Legal Requirements. Many types of workers may qualify as “mandated reporters” for both children and vulnerable adults, and states can vary widely on such requirements. It may otherwise be important to report suspected abuse, both internally within an organization and to outside authorities, to protect the safety of vulnerable persons and for effective risk management. An organization should determine the nature of legal responsibilities for the organization and its workers. An experienced legal professional should be able to help make these determinations.
- Reporting Protocols. The abuse prevention and protection policy thus must include reporting guidelines, with clear protocols in the event of suspected abuse. For example, the policy should include government agency telephone numbers or website hotline information. In addition, the policy should describe specific steps for completing an incident report with a suspected abuse victim, removing a suspected perpetrator or taking other precautions to promote safety, notifying responsible adults, and working with supervisory personnel on follow-up measures such as insurance, confidentiality, and consultation with legal counsel, as needed.
- Insurance Coverage. It may be helpful as well to check with the organization’s insurance company for any additional requirements or recommendations in connection with these risk management measures.
Situations involving suspected abuse can quickly escalate into a myriad of questions and concerns, demanding both urgent attention and utmost sensitivity. Through structural safeguards, like utilizing an abuse prevention policy and accompanying forms, nonprofit organizations can be well prepared to provide safer environments for the people entrusted to them, better protection for the workers themselves against potential liability, and achievement of corresponding risk management goals.
There are a number of resources to help organizations with child protection including, newly formed Evangelical Council for Abuse Prevention. ECAP has assembled a team of professionals working to establish child protection standards for ministries and an accreditation program. A risk and program assessment may be one of the best places to start in determining how your school or organization measures up in protecting kids. Visit www.abuseprevention.org to access this free resource and mark your calendars for a Abuse Prevention National Conference online or in Nashville on June 17, 2021.
Protecting the least of these is vital to our work as Christians in evangelism, discipleship, or spiritual formation. Let us commit to prayer that our children and our witness before a watching world are spared from any form of abuse.
Jeff Dalrymple is Executive Director of Evangelical Council for Abuse Prevention, a new national ministry dedicated to helping churches, schools, and ministries prevention abuse. Jeff formerly served as a vice president at Southern Seminary in Louisville, KY, and serves on the boards of The Apollos Project and Hadassah’s Hope. Sally Wagenmaker serves as General Counsel for Evangelical Council for Abuse Prevention.