Today, we warmly welcome Steve Collins to Discipleship Ministries to talk about child safety in the church. Our Kids’ Ministries’ Department is now working to assist churches to become as safe as possible for the children and teenagers in their care. Steve has been an amazing help to us as he serves as a child safety consultant for the IPHC. He also works with other denominations, churches, and organizations as the founder and executive director of Adults Protecting Children. Additionally, he is a regional coordinator for the Georgia Center for Child Advocacy.
Kristi: What inspired you to start "Adults Protecting Children?"
Steve: When I was confronted with the facts about child sexual abuse, the prevalence of it and the problems that flowed from it, I knew I had to do something. I also saw that no one in my community was doing prevention. All the agencies working with child sexual abuse were dealing with the aftermath. The Bill Gates Foundation has a great quote regarding AIDs. “Treatment without prevention is simply unsustainable.” This is also true for child sexual abuse. I knew I could provide training and resources to organizations that wanted to have a prevention emphasis but didn’t have the time or resources for it. So, I started my non-profit to fill the gap. In my last ministry job, I learned a lot about prevention and writing child protection policies. I felt like the Lord was calling me to help the church, as well as other youth-serving organizations and public schools in my region.
Kristi: Aren't churches fairly-safe places for children? Are we making more of this issue than is needed?
Steve: Learning the facts about child abuse must guide us in our child protection decisions. Passive trust can no longer be the standard operating procedure in our churches. The number one reason Protestant churches went to court in 2018 was child sexual abuse. It was also the number one reason all the way back to 2010, except for 2016 when it was the number 2 reason. If it were any other single issue that was litigated against the church, I suspect the Protestant church would have aggressively addressed that problem. Why have we allowed this to remain the number one issue for so many years?
We know children are most often abused by someone they trust. 90% of children know their abuser. Teachers, coaches, pastors, fathers and mothers abuse children. This statistic changes everything. It changes how we parent, and it changes how churches operate. This statistic means there is no place a child goes where she/he is guaranteed to be protected. It is up to adults to make sure our children are safe. it is imperative that churches have thorough procedures and a code of conduct that sets the boundaries adults must maintain when working with children. And churches must make sure all interactions between adults with children and older children with younger children are monitored and properly supervised.
Kristi: What are the most important steps pastors and leaders can take to protect their children?
Steve: I think it begins with the leadership adopting a zero-tolerance policy for any form of child maltreatment. I suggest they write a mission statement clearly stating that safeguarding children will be the highest priority in children’s ministry. Then, from that, their policies and procedures flow. Next, I think leadership needs to participate in all trainings required of other staff and volunteers. I have talked with many children’s ministry directors who understand the importance of child protection policies and training, but who do not feel their leadership supports them. My experience is that churches with engaged leadership are better equipped to protect children and remain vigilant in maintaining safe environments. If a pastor doesn’t go through the same training as the volunteers, it sends the message that children’s ministry is not that important. Finally, leadership must make the decision to report all disclosures and suspicion of abuse to law enforcement. In some states, they are mandated by law to report abuse. But even in those states where church leaders are not mandated, the church needs to make it a matter of policy. Child sexual abuse is more than a sin. It is a crime. The church is not trained to carry out a thorough investigation or to determine if there are other victims. When a church decides to “internally handle” an incident of child sexual abuse, without exception, it benefits the abuser and the further victimization of the child and the child’s family.
Kristi: What should we do if we suspect a child is being abused?
Steve: First, recognize the critical nature of this very moment. I believe you have to act on behalf of the child. Don’t miss this opportunity. If you act and the child is not being abused, what have you lost? If you don’t act and the child is being abused, your decision can have life-long implications, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Next, remember that you don’t need proof of abuse to make a report. All you need is reasonable suspicion. If you are going to err, err on the side of protecting the child. Make a report.
When you make a report, you aren’t making an accusation. You are requesting that a professional determine if a child is in danger. If you aren’t sure if your suspicion is “reasonable,” call your local Child Advocacy Center and share what you have observed or heard. Let them guide you through the decision-making process. Don’t just sit on the information.
This is also why we need thorough policies and procedures and a clear reporting protocol. Churches need to have clearly defined action steps so they can respond immediately to a disclosure or suspicion of abuse. If you wait until you are in that moment to determine your action steps, you may not act quickly enough or let fear guide your decision-making. Questions like “What if I am wrong?” or “What if the child is lying?” must be discussed ahead of time so your actions are based on what is best for the child. Clearly stated policies and procedures, as well as thorough training, are critical to good decision-making in the moment.
Kristi: If we already do background checks and have child safety policies in place, why do we also need training?
Steve: Signing a paper doesn’t insure folks really understand the policies or know why they are in place. You have to review your procedures annually with your workers. Make sure every adult knows how to maintain a safe environment for children.
If any of your church staff or volunteers are mandated reporters in your state, or if your church has determined as a matter of policy that abuse will be reported, you need to train your workers how to identify the signs of child maltreatment you are required to report. For example, not everyone knows that child sexual abuse doesn’t have to involve touch. Exposure to pornography is a form of child sexual abuse and must be reported.
Research shows that 1 in 10 children will be sexually abused before the age of 18. That means in any church there could be children and youth who are being abused. Every church needs to ask this question: “Is it acceptable that a child could go through our children’s ministry program while being abused and never find a safe adult to tell?” If the answer to that question is “NO,” then how are you equipping your workers to know what to look for in a child who is being abused or how to respond to a disclosure of abuse? If a church is not training folks, they run the risk of failing the most vulnerable child at the most critical time in his/her life
Kristi: Is there anything else you would want to communicate to a church's leadership about child safety that we haven't already covered?
Steve: The last thing I would say relates back to the training question. The importance of thorough training cannot be overstated. But you have to be careful of what you use as your training material. For example, there are a number of online options. Online training is convenient but be sure to provide facilitator-led training often. My experience is that online trainings give folks information, but it’s not necessarily empowering them to step into the issues around child maltreatment. A facilitator-led training gives your team an opportunity to discuss child safety and what it takes as a team to do the hard work of child safety, such as intervening when an adult crosses a child’s boundary, or violates your code of conduct, or making an actual report. Those group discussions can be very empowering.
Some training programs are also, in my opinion, fear-based. They focus so much on understanding the marks of a pedophile and how to identify the abuser that it can generate an atmosphere of suspicion. There is some benefit for a few key leaders having this type of training, but there are other options for your volunteers. Take fear out of the issue and empower folks by helping them make smart decisions that create safer environments for children. I think you can create safe environments that also reflect the love and grace of God for our children, and you can make children’s ministry an exciting place to serve the Lord with joy and confidence.
Establishing policies, procedures, and trainings in your conference or church can be a daunting task. However, we are here to help. Please contact our department at firstname.lastname@example.org or Steve Collins directly at email@example.com for more information.