Is Your Church a Safe Place for Children?

January 17, 2013 - 8 minutes read

At Churches of Christ in Australia we are committed to creating safe places for children. With the recent announcements of the Federal Government Royal Commission and the Victorian Parliament Committee inquiry into child sexual abuse in churches and other agencies, the need to protect children and young people has really come under the spotlight. This means that all church leaders need to make a concerted effort to develop a child safe church for the protection and safety of children in their care – not only in terms of sexual abuse but also physical and emotional abuse and neglect.

What is abuse?

Churches of Christ in Victoria and Tasmania (CCVT) defines abuse as “a violation of personhood; the robbing of a person’s rights”, and child abuse as “any act that endangers the child’s physical or emotional health or development” (see the document “Duty of Care for Responsible Leadership of Children and Youth”). Other states will operate with similar definitions, based on their own policies and Codes of Conduct.

When sexual abuse of children happens within the sphere of a congregation, it is ‘costly’ not only in terms of the pain and the loss of morale and trust it creates, but also potentially there is a monetary cost too if legal proceedings ensue. Precautions and codes of conduct need to be put in place in order to help keep children safe from those who would abuse their positions of trust and power over them. Some helpful guidelines are listed below.

Recruitment guidelines for roles involving working with children and youth

  • Job applicants – when reviewing applicants’ resumés, investigate any significant and unexplained time gaps in employment. It’s also wise to contact referees for any information that may help determine the applicant’s suitability for the position.
  • WWC checks – according to the Victorian Department of Justice a WWC (‘Working with Children Check’) is “an ongoing assessment by the Department of Justice of a person’s suitability to work with children, examining relevant serious sexual, physical and drug offences in a person’s national criminal history and, where appropriate, their professional history.” A WWC needs to be conducted for any applicant you are considering for any position that involves working with children or youth.
  • Police checks – these should also be conducted. However unlike WWC’s a police check is simply a list of a person’s criminal history of offences, but does not offer any kind of assessment.

It is important that you check any unique requirements in your state or territory.

Supervision, authority and accountability

It’s vitally important that guidelines are clear with regard to authority and accountability matters. This includes:

  • The provision of initial and ongoing training of leaders so that they fully understand behavioural expectations, boundaries, responsibilities and lines of authority in their roles.
  • Supervision and accountability issues need to be in place to ensure that leaders are fully aware of their level of accountability to the church as a whole and towards individuals in their care.
  • Processes for inappropriate behaviours should be established and communicated.
  • Approval processes for youth events should be put in place to help ensure the safety of staff, volunteers and children and young people.

Reporting of incidents and remedial actions

It is important to be alert for signs of abuse or harm that might be occurring. These may include bruises, broken bones, difficulty sitting or urinating, frequent health issues, developmental delays, anxious or regressive behaviour or aggression. In a case where a child reports having been abused it’s vital to follow it up. This should be handled firstly by reporting it to a supervisor, manager, senior leader or senior minister. If evidence points to a possible crime having been committed, the police should be contacted at the earliest possible time.

In 2015 new laws were passed in Victoria that make it mandatory for all adults who hold a reasonable belief that a child is the victim of sexual abuse, to report it to the authorities. Church leaders and anyone involved in the leadership of children and youth also hold a moral duty and responsibility to lodge a report if suspicion of abuse exists. Therefore it is CCVT policy that all suspected child abuse incidents should be reported to the relevant authorities. Both Child First in Victoria and Gateway in Tasmania provide information and contact points regarding child protection in their respective States. Other States will have other pathways, and these need to be known and noted.

Education of children

While children are not usually able to stop abuse from happening themselves, it should be communicated to them that they have a right to be safe and to say no to being touched if it causes them discomfort. While ‘stranger danger’ is often high on the list, it’s important to note that in about 90% of cases abuse is caused by someone known to the victim, and sometimes even a well-trusted person.

Child Safety assistance for churches through ChildSafe

ChildSafe Limited is an organisation that has been set up to provide resources and support to churches and other organisations that work with children to help create a safe environment and improve child safety issues. CCVT and some other states have engaged ChildSafe to provide services that include training and resources for employees and volunteers on implementing safety management policies. Access to ChildSafe is provided for no charge through CCI. For more information see our article here or contact Russell Hoath.

Liability insurance

Finally, it’s important to be aware that CCI will not provide cover for legal liability in cases of sexual abuse where the insured knew or ought to have known that the perpetrator had a history of offences. This is known as the “Known Offenders Exclusion” – more information on this can be found on the website.

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