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Keeping Children and Youth Safe

Although the primary purpose of this manual is to help congregations deal with a known sex offender, that alone does not keep children safe. It is often the case that the sex offender that is known and who has been through treatment is not the person who is most likely to sexually abuse children in your congregation. It is the person that we don't know, but who has children's trust, that can pose the greatest threat.

In defining our responsibility to the children and youth we serve, the 1995 UUA Congregational Handbook said:

“Adults working with children and youth in the context of our Unitarian Universalist faith have a crucial and privileged role, one that can carry a great deal of power and influence. Whether acting as a youth advisor, chaperone, child care worker, teacher, choir director, minister, or in any other role, adults have a special opportunity to interact with young people in ways that are affirming and inspiring to young people and adults…while it is important that adults be capable of meaningful friendships with the young people with whom they work, adults must exercise good judgment and mature wisdom in using their influence with children and young adults and refrain from using young people to fulfill their own needs. Young people are in a vulnerable position when dealing with adults and may find it difficult to speak out about inappropriate behavior by adults….adult religious leaders need to be people who…have a social network outside of their religious education responsibility in which to meet their own needs for friendship, affirmation and self esteem, are willing and able to seek assistance from colleagues and religious professionals when they become aware of a situation that requires expert help or intervention.”

"Creating Safe Congregations: Toward an Ethic of Right Relations Workbook" is the primary resource for this issue.

Taking into account the facts and circumstances of each situation, there are basic questions that can guide congregational policy development and implementation

  1. What will your policy be regarding involvement of a person who has been convicted of an act of sexual misconduct in religious education for children and youth, children's worship, events for children, or youth group activities?
  2. What process will you follow if it is disclosed that sexual abuse of a child has possibly occurred by either a staff member of the church or a volunteer at the church working with children? By whom and how shall such allegations be reported to the police and Child Protective Services, as required by state law?
  3. What will your policies be regarding adult supervision? How will you implement a policy requiring a minimum of two adults present at all times in each classroom, at youth group meetings, and other events involving children and youth in the church? How will you assure that this policy works and works well for you? Consider having the Religious Educator and/or chair or member(s) of the RE committee circulate among classrooms on Sunday mornings, partially to assure that this policy is in effect. What will you do when a teacher or leader calls to say they will not be able to be present as planned? What process will you use so that the other teacher or leader can recruit an appropriate adult to stay in the room during the class? Will you determine that classes will generally not take place with only one adult present?
  4. How will you screen prospective employees and potential volunteers? Develop and use a Screening Form that includes the necessary information for a background or other appropriate record check to be performed. This should be done for all persons who will be working with children and youth—both those seeking employment and for volunteers. (Your local police department can provide you with information for your state on how to conduct a background check.) A sample screening form is found in the appendix.

    Every employee and every volunteer who comes in contact with children and youth needs to receive a copy of the safe congregation policy, ethics policy, and sexual harassment policy. Review those policies with every individual who will be teaching. The UUA recommends doing background checks on all employees and volunteers who will be working with children and youth. It is essential that this be done if items are checked on the screening form that raises the possibility of past abusive histories.

    The use of a Screening Form in and of itself may well deter a pedophile from further attempts to volunteer or work at the congregation. Most pedophiles will look for places with easy access to children; this type of screening form indicates that your congregation is not such a place.
  5. Every employee and every volunteer who works with children and youth will annually review and sign the Agreement to Teach Form and the congregation's Code of Ethics for Adults Working with Children and Youth. One such policy is included in the Forms and Samples section of this manual
  6. What policies will you develop and implement for persons new to the congregation who wish to be involved in ministries with children and/or youth? All persons volunteering to work with children and youth will have been associated with the congregation for a minimum of one year. Exceptions may be made only by the Religious Educator in consultation with the minister upon recommendation of a minister or Religious Educator at another congregation where the volunteer has provided such services.
  7. What plans for regular training of adults working with children and youth will you develop and implement? At a minimum, every person, whether employee or volunteer, who works or comes in contact with children and youth, will attend an annual training on child sexual abuse prevention and reporting requirements. This training will include:
    • Definition of child abuse  
    • Sexual and physical abuse symptoms  
    • Basics of child sexual development and expected behaviors by age  
    • What constitutes inappropriate touch and behaviors  
    • Congregation's safe policies and ethics policy  
    • Rationale behind screening procedures  
    • Reporting procedures for observed or suspect child abuse and child sexual abuse
    • Review of the congregation's Code of Ethics for Adults Working with Children and Youth
  8. What policies will you develop and implement regarding the screening and training of preteens and teenagers who work with children in Religious Education programs and/or provide child care for congregation events? Ideally, all of our child care providers would have Red Cross or similar babysitting training. Like with adults, teens and preteens should only provide child care in pairs or even larger groups. Information about sexual abuse should be part of their annual training, including the damage that inappropriate sexual touching does to a child and the consequences for the child care provider who engages in inappropriate touching of a child. Teen and preteen potential child care providers need to know that if they feel tempted to touch a child sexually, they must tell a grown up who can help them. Attention to this in the pre-service training may help screen out young people who might sexually act out or propel them to get help. [x]
  9. Relationships between adult advisors and teens should also be discussed in youth advisor trainings. Relationships of advisor/advisee and mentor/mentee are important to the faith development of youth. However, friendships between advisers and youth should be discouraged. An unhealthy relationship initiated by a sex offender may masquerade as a mentor or friend relationship. The Pacific Southwest District Child and Youth Protection Requirements, state that “if you wish to be in contact with a youth outside the normal channels of district-sponsored events, it is imperative that your behavior both be and appear to be above reproach. Any relationship you develop with a youth outside of district-sponsored events must be with the knowledge and consent of the parents. Furthermore, you shall let an appropriate member of the district know what you are doing…Notify the youth's minister, or religious education leader, or society president. T his is for the protection of the youth from potential predators, but also for your own protection. You will best protect yourself from false accusations of misconduct by keeping the district and the parents informed of your actions.” Such a policy could be adapted to apply to events or activities outside of the congregation as well.