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Walking a Legal Tightrope With Screening and Training

Drew Crislip

Children's ministry security is not an issue that should be taken lightly.

A church-affiliated middle school interviewed Mitch for a teaching position. But, when asked why he'd left the field three years earlier, Mitch didn't mention that he'd gotten a 15-year-old girl from his former church pregnant. The school learned of Mitch's past a few months after it hired him.

Hal's first post-seminary job was associate pastor with responsibility for children. For seven years, he was a popular church staff member. Then the sixth-grade son of the senior minister told a terrible secret-Hal had molested him. The church learned that Hal had fondled eight of the church's boys during the previous two-year period.

Courts often refrain from holding ministries responsible for the actions of their employees or volunteers. However, some have been more open to considering whether a ministry has been negligent in the areas of background screening and training its personnel. You can help protect your ministry and your children through these background screening and training practices.

It's imperative to follow procedures like these with potential staffers or volunteers. It's also advisable to go through these steps with workers already on board with your ministry.

*Application procedures-Use a detailed application form. You can get samples from organizations such as Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Big Brothers, Big Sisters, Youth for Christ, or 4-H. Have an attorney tailor the final document to your church's individual needs. Get a written statement from the applicant acknowledging that he or she has no background of impropriety with children or youth.

Some experts require a six-month minimum church membership for volunteers. This discourages potential child abusers who church-hop looking for a quick and easy fix.

*Interviews-Don't stop there. Whenever your ministry is hiring a new staffer or looking for a volunteer, particularly one who'll work closely with young children, ask probing questions. Why are you interested in children's work? What gifts do you bring to it? Have you ever been accused of impropriety with children or youth? If so, what are the details?

Don't fall into the "one member from every board" trap in setting up a personnel committee. While that may be a fine start, you need to have a qualified team. Committee members should be well versed in children's work. Your interview team should know what to watch for in potential child molesters. Often, police or social-service agencies (even insurance companies) can offer training or advice.

*Criminal check-Explain to each applicant what your purpose is in using background checks. Get a written release from the applicant and complete a criminal records check. Your local law enforcement agency or the FBI can be of assistance. If an applicant refuses to cooperate, don't permit that person to work with children.

*References-Insist on references drawn from a broad cross section of individuals who've known the applicant for many years and in many settings-personal, educational, and professional. And check the references carefully.

Even if the person is someone well known to your ministry, don't bypass these steps! It's true you may not have to delve quite as deeply, but you still need to record that you've taken action to protect your children!

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