Content note: contains non-specific mentions of child abuse.
As we engage in our ministries with children and youth this year, there are many important decisions we must make, from returning to in-person worship, to making our spaces safe for children with food allergies, and more. One consideration that can easily be overlooked is vetting our volunteers. It is a common experience that it is such a struggle to recruit volunteers that, once we do, we're loath to then tell them there are additional requirements before they can serve.
But part of our responsibility as people who engage in ministry with children is keeping those children safe, and there are important steps we can take to increase the chances that the people we recruit to model for them the love and care of the Divine are qualified to do so.
While it may be overwhelming to consider the challenge of vetting staff and volunteers, it can become less daunting when we think along three tracks:
Processes Required by Law
In the US, the legal requirements for volunteers working with children vary vastly by state, and there may be city, county, or even township laws that supersede state regulations. The human services web page for your state/city/etc. should provide you with the information you need to understand the minimum legal requirements. (It is important to note that, in most states, human services departments will not reach out to churches to inform them of their legal obligations.) You may also consider making a call to the office of a local school—they likely process background checks for hundreds of volunteers and may be willing to talk you through the process.
Processes Required by Adjudicatory Bodies
Synods, dioceses, presbyteries, and other adjudicatory bodies may have requirements that exceed those set by the state, as can hospitals and other organizations in which churches may serve. A call to your local bishop’s office is a good place to start to find out about additional requirements, as is the HR or volunteer coordination office in any other organizations to which your church sends volunteers/staff.
When recruiting staff and volunteers who are least likely to cause severe harm to children, there are best practices that have been established by experts in the field. I strongly encourage congregations to implement these procedures, even if their churches are in locales with lax regulations or where law enforcement looks the other way when churches violate them. The cold, hard fact of the matter is that churches often provide safe havens for people who physically, emotionally, or sexually abuse children. But there is much that can be done to make the environment safer, including:
- No adult is ever alone with a child that they are not the legal guardian for. This is especially important in bathrooms, cars, and any spaces that are not in view/earshot of other adults.
- Volunteers must have been church members for a minimum of six months before serving with children, and they need to have served in another capacity first.
- At a minimum, people wishing to volunteer with children should have a child abuse clearance dating back at least 10 years.
- People wishing to volunteer with children should be interviewed first about why they want to do so and have at least twice-yearly reviews of their work. The children with whom they interact should have a say in who is chosen and should be invited to provide regular feedback.