Safe Sanctuaries

By Bettina Lehovec
The Morning News

August 17, 2008

Churches Strive To Create Abuse-Free Environments For Children

ROGERS - Once upon a time, church communities knew the people in their midst.

Fellow worshippers were friends and neighbors. Parents felt comfortable leaving their children with Sunday school teachers. No one thought twice about an adult volunteer helping toddlers on the potty or driving teens to an event.

"Those things have changed," said Karen Anderson, children's education director at Central United Methodist Church in Rogers. "We have so many new faces and so many people moving in and out of this area. ... There are lots of people coming (to church) that we don't know."

Central United has joined a growing group of area churches in implementing a safe environment policy for the children in its care. The Safe Sanctuaries program requires all who work with children to attend a three-hour training, undergo a background check, wear a photo badge and follow staff supervision guidelines.

The policy is a preemptive measure designed to protect children, volunteers and church assets, Anderson told a small group of volunteers at a training on Aug. 9.

"Nothing will tear a church apart faster than an allegation of abuse - whether it's substantiated or not," she said.The church started its Safe Sanctuaries program in March, after nine months of intensive study. About 150 volunteers have been certified so far. On an average Sunday, 28 volunteers lead programs for close to 200 children and youth.

"These are the formative years," Anderson said. "We need to make sure every exposure they have is as positive as it can possibly be."

The program reflects a national initiative adopted by the General Conference of the United Methodist Church in 2000. The state conference adopted its own resolution in 2004. Karen Swales, a member of the Safe Sanctuaries task force, said all churches in the state conference are required to have a Safe Sanctuaries policy in place by December.

Swales is minister to families at First United Methodist Church in Springdale. Her church started a Safe Sanctuaries program seven years ago.

The primary motivation is to keep children safe, but the policies also protect churches from possible litigation, Swales said. Churches can be held responsible for incidents of abuse if they are shown to not have selected or supervised staff appropriately.

"Legally, this represents that we are putting forth a good faith effort to (protect) our children," Swales said. "Nothing is foolproof, but we're doing the best that we can."

Awareness The Key

A number of area churches have adopted similar policies in recent years.

First Baptist Church in Springdale requires background checks on volunteers who work with children. Fellowship Bible Church in Lowell adds a six-month waiting period, two references and a training program.

Both churches have guidelines prohibiting volunteers from being alone with children.

The Episcopal Church in Arkansas requires diocese-wide training in Safeguarding God's Children, a program developed by the Church Pension Group. The training has been offered for more than a decade and was recommitted to at the General Assembly in 2003.

The Diocese of Little Rock, which encompasses Catholic churches in the state, uses the Virtus program. The program consists of two parts - Protecting God's Children for adults and Touching Safety for children.

More than 10,000 adults and 12,000 children have taken the training since it was introduced in the state in 2003, said Teri Tribby, safe environment coordinator for the diocese.

"Awareness and education are the key. The more you know, the better off you're going to be," she said. "Children can't fend off a monster. We as caring adults need to be there for them - protect them - keep those people out of our churches and schools."

Anderson and Tracy Hillis, her fellow children's education director at Central United Methodist, anticipated some resistance. They feared background checks would be seen as invasive or people would resent the training time involved.

But church churchgoers have accepted the new policy with little hesitation.

"I think people understand that the culture's changing and we need to be prepared," Anderson said. "When people understand that it's for the safety of our kids, that instinct overrides the instinct for personal privacy."

Personal information is kept in a vaulted area and shared only with pastors. If a background check finds criminal activity, the situation is handled on a case-by-case basis. Some situations, such as a decades-old conviction for writing hot checks, are non-issues, Anderson said.

"We're not looking to pick people apart. We're not trying to expose every flaw." She hopes that background checks act as a deterrent, discouraging potential abusers from even trying to get involved.

Ama Engmann, a church member with three children, said she has no problem with the policy.

"I think it's laudable, a good thing to do. You feel more confident, especially if you have children, knowing you have good people looking out for their own good."

A Growing Problem

People often turn a blind eye to the issue of sexual abuse, preferring to think "It won't happen here," Hillis said.

Yet abuse is prevalent. One out of every three girls will have been sexually abused by the time she reaches 18, studies show. The percentage is one out of six for boys.

When applied to a congregation the size of Central's, that means a hypothetical 83 girls and 42 boys on any given Sunday will have been abused, Hillis said.

There were 729 registered sex offenders in Benton and Washington counties as of March 28.

The Arkansas Department of Human Services recorded some 774 abuse cases (all types) in the area in 2006.

"It's staggering - and sad," Hillis said. Public awareness has grown in recent decades, but abuse has likely always existed. She and Anderson passed out newspaper clippings about recent occurrences of alleged abuse. The incidents cut across socio-economic levels, ages and ethnic groups.

One suspect, a man accused of trying to meet a teen girl for sex, lives in her neighborhood, Anderson said. The two families had been on friendly terms, with her children visiting with his.

"That's how close this is," she said. "They look like me. They look like you. ... We teach our children stranger safety, but it's really not from strangers that our children are in the most danger. There's a grooming process that happens (as perpetrators gain the child's trust)."

Statistics show that in three-fourths of sexual abuse cases, the child and abuser are acquainted or related, Anderson said.

"Hopefully, we've deterred anyone from volunteering who has that on his mind."

Other steps to protect children include age guidelines for volunteers, an open door policy for classrooms and a rule that two volunteers be present at all times. The rules protect adults as well as children, Anderson pointed out. She used the hypothetical example of a good-looking youth pastor and a teenage girl who feels slighted and makes false accusations.

"If they've been alone together, there's the potential for disaster. It becomes a 'he said, she said' kind of thing."

Volunteers are not expected to be child abuse experts, although they are trained in recognizing signs of abuse. If something raises a red flag, they are instructed to contact authorities and take no action of their own.

Other aspects of the training include descriptions of church ministries, appropriate discipline, a building orientation and tornado and fire drill procedures.

A first aid and CPR class are also available, but not required.

"I love (the program)," said Carness Vaughan, senior pastor at the church. "It gives us a way to say to parents, 'This is a safe environment. We take your children seriously.'"


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