Why background checks aren’t enough to prevent abuse in your church

March 12, 2021

I’m deeply saddened every time I read about accounts of abuse in the church, and I frequently see one statement from church leaders that makes me cringe: “We conducted a background check.”

Background checks are important, but they are only one small step in vetting prospective volunteers for serving in ministry. In fact, background checks are a low standard for protecting children and youth.

Few reported cases of child sexual abuse result in criminal convictions that place offenders on the National Sex Abuse Registry.

Child sex abuse cases are difficult to prosecute due to many factors, which include a lack of concrete evidence, a lack of trust in the veracity of victim’s testimony (especially young children) and the length of time between an assault and its disclosure. One study found that less than one in five reported cases of child sex abuse goes forward to prosecution, and only about half of those result in a conviction or guilty plea.

Background checks are important, but they are only one small step in vetting prospective volunteers for serving in ministry.

Beyond conducting background checks, what can your church do to increase protection of children and youth in your ministry setting?

  1. Have written policies in place and enforce them.
    Create written policies that outline the expectation for volunteers and staff in their interactions with children and youth. Include specificity about having at least two adults serving together so that no adult is ever alone with a child or youth. Have a mandated period of time that an individual must wait before being allowed to serve with children and youth in your ministry. The waiting period allows other adults to become more familiar with the person who wants to serve and can be a deterrent for those who want immediate access to children and youth. Include in your policy the steps for protecting minors at camp or other off-site ministries.
  2. Conduct a thorough screening of all volunteers.
    Vet all prospective volunteers before allowing them to serve. Have them complete an application to serve that includes written permission to conduct a criminal background check, along with contact references. Furthermore, schedule an in-person interview. Several resources to assist with these steps are available at ncbaptist.org/safety-and-security-nc.
  3. Train volunteers in sexual abuse recognition and prevention.
    Grooming a child or teen for sexual abuse often follows a set pattern of behavior by the abuser. Training leaders to look for these patterns is crucial to prevention. It’s also important to train volunteers about steps your church has taken to protect children and youth in your policies and what to do if grooming or abuse is suspected. More information on abuse prevention and the grooming process is available online through MinistrySafe at ministrysafe.com/ChildSafety. MinistrySafe is an organization that works with churches and ministries on abuse prevention.
  4. Understand and communicate reporting processes and procedures.
    Informing volunteers and parents about your church’s reporting system is important, as well as knowing your state’s mandatory reporting laws. In North Carolina, if abuse is suspected, there is a legal mandate to report it to your county’s Child Protective Services. Reports made to church staff or designated church representatives do not remove the requirement to report to Child Protective Services by the person who suspects abuse.
  5. Conduct a review of your facility.
    Take a hard look at your facility, and identify any possible areas where abuse could occur. Be sure every meeting space in the church has a window in or near the door to allow a clear sightline into the space. Minimize and limit access to hidden corners and storage areas where a child or teen could be abused.
  6. Watch for potential abuse between children.
    A high percentage of reported abuse occurs between minors. Have sufficient numbers of volunteers to monitor relationships between children and youth. Look for children or youth who use an imbalance of power to intimidate, threaten, bully or abuse others.

Implementing these steps will help you and your church develop a comprehensive plan to prevent abuse. Background checks should be a part of that plan, but not the only part. For additional resources and information about preventing sexual abuse in your ministry context, visit the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina’s resource page at ncbaptist.org/safety-and-security-nc or contact childhood ministry consultant, Cheryl Markland, at [email protected].

by Cheryl Markland  
/  Childhood Evangelism and Discipleship  /  Baptist State Convention of North Carolina

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