Virtually all of us have come to realize that one of the most important ways ministry has changed in the past decades is the greatly increased sensitivity toward inappropriate contact with children and youth. Many of us—whether called, paid staff or volunteers—have seen or personally experienced this increased sensitivity.
Of course, we could spend a lifetime arguing about the merits—or demerits—of this sensitivity. But the bottom line is simply this:
Recently I read the entire court testimony of a Christian male in an early childhood ministry setting who was convicted of CSC (Criminal Sexual Conduct). As I read through the testimonies, each of the witnesses described the defendant’s interactions with the various children. In the perception of the witnesses, these behaviors seemed suspicious. The sheer number and kinds of inappropriate behaviors overwhelmed me.
As I read through this voluminous listing of inappropriate behaviors, I decided to make a list of them with the purpose of sharing them with my paid and volunteer staff. Below is the summarized listing I derived from the court records. It is my hope that this listing raises awareness in your ministries as to 1) what kinds of behaviors are inappropriate and 2) the potential consequences of unguarded inappropriate behaviors around children.
Note: Any single incidence of any of the behaviors listed below has the potential to make others suspicious of the person committing them. The potential greatly increases as an individual demonstrates a greater number of these suspicious behaviors.
- Never give an individual any gifts, candy, or special privileges. This especially includes gifts that suggest “mystery” or “secret” by their title or content.
- Don’t even think of asking for permission from parents to give a gift to a child or youth. See #1 above.
- Always have two adults attentive and watching when present with children.
- Remove all possible hiding places. This includes sanctuaries, balconies, narthexes, storage sheds, closets, furnace rooms, etc.
- Never invite a child to off-site activities (e.g. movies, walks, etc.) without the entire group and with at least one other adult.
- Do everything you can to avoid the appearance of “favorites.”
- Be cautious with children who have personalities (e.g. extreme extroverts or introverts) which may draw leaders to show undue attention to these children.
- Never communicate individually with children and youth via social media, email, texts, etc. If this is unavoidable, always CC the parents. Keep a complete record of all texts.
- Do not allow children to touch you, hang on your legs, arms, or other parts of your body.
- Do not hold, hug, pick up, give children rides on any part of your body (e.g. shoulder, legs). Giving “airplane rides” by swinging a child in circles should be avoided.
- Keep a safe distance between you and the child. In the rare event a hug is extended, do not give frontal hugs and be sure you are in full view of everyone.
- Avoid being too friendly and casual. Be cordial, professional, and friendly with the children … but never friends and buddies. If you’re enjoying the relationship too much, get out. Run!
- When dealing with a child, go through parents as much as possible. You are their proxy while they are away. Respect that.
- Never just happen to “stop by” a child’s house.
- If you think that others are being unreasonable in thinking your relationship with a child is too close, they’re not. Respect their sensitivities.
- Be aware of individuals who volunteer too much around children.
- Ensure all staff and volunteers have clear, well-defined boundaries.
- Do not let casual volunteers supervise any child or group of children when supervision might be less-boundaried.
- Do not sit down at a table next to small children. Tables—and any furniture or item which can conceal hands and other body parts—provide opportunity for inappropriate conduct.
- Never re-attach something to a child’s body or place it back in their pocket. Instead, stop them and place the object in their hand. Let them replace it themselves.
Perhaps one of the most memorable testimonies in the court record was that of a grandparent. When asked if he spent time alone with children, he said, “I try not to put myself in that position.”
May this listing help you make your ministry of sharing Jesus with children healthy and secure … not suspicious and confusing.
Dr. Bruce Braun, the Michigan District Assistant to the President — Superintendent of Schools, comments on the importance of background checks: “Any organization allowing adults the privilege to work with children needs to unapologetically insist upon collecting criminal background check information. Each ministry needs to determine what check best fits their needs or the legal requirements for their ministry. This needs to be boldly communicated to potential volunteers and workers to assist them in knowing that we are serious about children’s safety.” The Michigan District website has made available several different forms that you can use for your specific circumstances.
Rev. Thomas Fischer’s wife, Cheryl Fischer, has served as a Child Protective Service investigator (CPS) for the State of Michigan Department of Human Services.
Photo (c) Christopher Futcher/iStock