It’s critical that churches implement a thorough screening process for anyone that will have access to children and youth. A thorough process ensures candidates are suitable and compatible with your church’s policies and procedures.
Every potential staff and volunteer should go through the same screening process. It does not matter how well “everyone knows everyone.” Statistics tell us that 90% of children who are abused are done so by people they know and trust. There are six best practices for implementing a thorough screening process to reduce the risk of abuse and increase safety for those in your church’s care.
- Six-Month Rule: When churches adopt a policy of requiring potential volunteers to be either a member or regular attender for at least six months, it gives the church the opportunity to evaluate and observe applicants. It also acts as a deterrent to those who desire to seek immediate access to children for ill-intended purposes.
- Written Application: A written application gives the candidate a chance to provide information to the church pertinent to their desire to serve with children and youth. The written application should request information such as prior experiences of serving with children and youth, what age group he/she wishes to serve with and why, and abilities he/she possesses that make him/her a good candidate. The application should also have questions that will permit the church to run a background check on the candidate.
- Background Check: Background checks must be run on every potential staff or volunteer over the age of 18 desiring to have access to children and youth. While background checks are non-negotiable, they are NOT sufficient as a stand-alone safety measure to protect children and youth! Background checks will only provide information on criminal convictions (when someone has been caught). Many sexual offenders have never been caught and will have numerous victims before and IF they are ever caught. In Maryland, background checks only go back seven years. Background checks are limited in the information they provide and while they must be done, they should never be the only screening tool a church uses!
- Reference Checks: Reference checks are extremely helpful to the screening process of potential staff or volunteer candidates. Reference checks help to verify that people are who they say they are. A request for references can be added to the written application or given as a separate document. Requesting several references (and following through on them!) allows a church to hear about the candidates’ prior behavior with other churches or organizations. Be sure to keep written documentation on who was spoken to and when.
- Interview: Sitting down face-to-face with potential staff and volunteers offers a time to build a relationship, get to know the applicant, observe body language, and share information about your church and its policies. The interview time should be structured with open-ended questions. Give the applicant scenarios and ask how he/she would handle them. The interview also gives you an opportunity to ask any clarifying questions you might have regarding his/her application or background check. It’s a good idea to have at least two people conduct the interview with the applicant to allow for multiple observations.
- Social Media Review: It’s helpful to review a candidate’s online presence to look for potential red flags or any content that could indicate improper behavior. Red flags could be inappropriate pictures, suggestive or explicit comments, excessive commenting and interest in children or students by someone older, and language that would be deemed inappropriate for service in a church setting. If the applicant does not have social media, a Google search of his/her name may yield helpful information.
While these screening measures may seem lengthy and extensive, the first and best line of defense against child sexual abuse in the church is making sure those that we allow access to children are well screened and are committed themselves to prevent abuse from happening.