Trust but Verify

By Jeanette Harder

“We’re family here.”

While we may not say that aloud, it is often what we think when we’re presented with the notion of screening church volunteers. Or perhaps we don’t think about screening at all—we just have spots to fill in our church, and we do everything we can to find volunteers to fill them.

Statistics show that nearly all abused children were abused by someone they knew, quite often a biological parent. So our excuse that “churches are like families” and therefore we don’t need to screen volunteers really doesn’t hold up. While we don’t want to be suspicious of everyone, we do need to keep our eyes and hearts open to all the ways that children and youth may be vulnerable in our churches. We need to be proactive. I’ve seen the consequences that occur when churches fail to do so, and it’s not pretty.

So it’s one thing to decide to screen volunteers; it’s quite another to actually do it. The list of possible screening methods is long: background checks, interviews, applications, reference checks, the “six-month rule,” just to name a few.

Let’s look more closely at some of these options.

1. Conducting Background Checks   

You certainly don’t want to invite someone to work with your children and youth and then find out too late that if you’d only run a background check you could have prevented a child from being hurt. Background checks are important—but they’re not perfect.

  • They’re not (always) free, and they’re certainly not foolproof. Many types and levels of checks are available at both the state and national levels: criminal, child abuse registries, sex offender registries, and others. Each type has a long list of limitations. Your local law enforcement or child advocacy center should have recommendations for the types of checks they believe would be most beneficial in your area. Your liability insurance carrier may also have useful guidelines.
  • There are other limitations with background checks. Sex offenders often have many victims before getting “caught.” The check may be for only your state or only offenses in the last 10 years. Also, a large proportion of offenses are handled by child protective services and the perpetrators receive voluntary services and never go through the court system. Too often, abusive acts don’t get reported or there is a significant lag in time before they are reported.
  • Another thing to keep in mind with background checks is … what will you do if something turns up? Which offenses are of concern, and which ones can be disregarded as not increasing risk? For example, a shoplifting charge from 20 years ago should not prohibit someone from volunteering in the nursery. However, a driving under the influence (DUI) offense for someone who will be transporting children to/from vacation Bible school would be a concern.

All this to say, background checks are important, they’re part of our due diligence, but alone they are not enough to keep our children and youth safe. 

2. Knowing Your Volunteers

How well do you know your volunteers? Has someone in your church known them for at least six months?

  • A formal or informal reference check with previous churches or employers can tell you a lot about an individual, especially if the potential volunteer had interactions with children and youth in those places.
  • Ask about what his or her role was with children and youth; how children, youth, and families responded to him or her; and under what circumstances he or she left.

Like the background check, this isn’t enough to keep children and youth safe, but it’s an important piece to the overall plan. 

3. Have a Plan and Follow It

Once you have a plan for screening volunteers, follow it. Consistently. It’s easy to become lax in implementing plans and policies, especially in the midst of busy day-to-day demands. Establishing or following plans can be particularly difficult when we experience resistance. Some volunteers may not want to be “bothered” by the screening procedures, especially if they’ve been volunteering for a long time and haven’t had to do this before. One response can be to explain that we can’t start deciding who we will and won’t screen based on subjective criteria—we need to screen everyone.

4. It’s Not Just about Screening

It’s just as important to continue having a watchful eye over volunteers as it is to initially screen them.

  • Watch how they interact with children. Are they effective in building relationships with children while also respecting their “circles of grace”?
  • Do they have healthy adult relationships to meet their own needs?
  • Are they willingly following the guidelines provided in your child protection policy?
  • Above all, listen to children and their parents. Take any concerns about blurred boundaries or what may look like “grooming” behaviors very seriously.

After we have done our diligent duty of screening and monitoring volunteers, we need to maintain that sense of safety through such means as windows in doors, the “two-adult rule,” and using the Circle of Grace curriculum. In addition, child protection training is an important part of church ministry for both volunteers and paid staff. Those of us who interact with children need to know the risks and signs of abuse in children of all ages.

We need to know the types of child abuse and neglect and the typical behaviors of offenders. We need to know how to respond—and be willing to fulfill our responsibility as mandatory reporters of suspected abuse. The church can and should aid in these efforts by providing training on these and other matters relating to keeping children and youth safe.

Children are gifts from God. Let’s treat them with love and care. Our efforts at preventing harm will reap a harvest of joy, wholeness, and health for many years and generations to come. 

Jeanette Harder is the cofounder of Dove’s Nest, a nonprofit organization that seeks to empower and equip faith communities to keep children and youth safe in their homes, churches, and communities. Dr. Harder is the author of Let the Children Come: Preparing Faith Communities to End Child Abuse and Neglect. She is also a professor at the Grace Abbott School of Social Work at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Along with her husband, Stan, and teenage son, Jonathan, the Harders are members of First Mennonite Church in Lincoln, Nebraska.