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Church Security Guide

Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults in the Church

Young vulnerable child

Jesus said, "If anyone causes one of these little ones - those who believe in me - to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea." (Matthew 18:6) It is our responsibility, therefore, to understand how to incorporate child protection into our safety plan and to understand mandated reporting requirements in our states.

The Realities of Abuse Within the Church

There are few issues that cause children to "stumble" so completely as being abused. Abuse affects every area of victims' lives. Survivors often have issues with substance use, eating disorders, intimate relationships, obesity, smoking, and mental health problems including suicide attempts (Chartier, Walker, & Naimark, 2009; Felitti et al., 1998).

The more trauma a person suffered in childhood, the more likely to suffer from the issues above as well as diseases such as "ischemic heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease, skeletal fractures, and liver disease" (p. 245).

To those in church leadership, the most painful reactions of these abused children can be their loss of religion and even hostility toward the church (Vieth, Tchividjian, Walker, & Knodel, 2012, p. 327). Some victims refer to this loss of spiritual life as"soul murder" (Doyle, 2006, p. 208).

Abuse in the church takes many forms. Children and vulnerable adults can be victims of sexual, physical, psychological, financial abuse or neglect. Victims can be any age and either sex. Journalists covering the Catholic Church scandal at the end of the 20th century mainly focused on male child victims, but Marcel (2013) pointed out that there were numerous cases of female victims, as well.

More than three-quarters of a million children in the United States were victims of child abuse and neglect in just one year (O'Neill, Gabel, Huckins, & Harder, 2010, p. 383). Looking at lifetime totals, Perry-Burney, Thomas, and McDonald (2014) reported that "one in three girls and one in seven boys will be sexually abused during childhood" (p. 987).

Additionally, some elderly adults suffer from abuse. Financial abuse is most common with the elderly. With that being said, elder abuse is reported less frequently than child abuse (Lachs, M., & Pillemer, K. (2015). Elder abuse. New England Journal of Medicine, 373, 1947-56. DOI: 10.1056/NEJMra1404688).


Protecting the most vulnerable members of the church is of the utmost importance. If people are abused, church leaders must act quickly to respond to their abuse by reporting the crimes to proper civil authorities and making sure the perpetrators are removed from duty while investigations are conducted.

Definitions of Abuse and Neglect

Legal definitions of abuse and neglect vary by state. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has standardized definitions that are a good guideline.

The CDC breaks down abuse and neglect into acts of commission (abuse) and those of omission (neglect).

  • Sexual abuse: any completed or attempted sexual act, sexual contact with or exploitation of a child (Leeb et al., 2008, p. 14).
  • Physical abuse: intentional use of physical force against a child that results in or has the potential to result in physical injury (p. 14).
  • Psychological abuse: intentional behavior to make a child believe they are worthless, flawed, unloved, unwanted, endangered, or valued only for meeting others' needs (p. 16).
  • Financial abuse: stealing from the viction or committing "fraud, exploitation, pressure in connection with wills, property or inheritance or financial transactions or the misuses or misappropriation of property, possessions or benefits" (SCIE as cited in Redmond, 2016, p. 87).
  • Neglect: failure to provide basic physical, emotional or education needs or to protect a child from harm or potential harm. Harm may or may not be the intended consequence (Leeb et al., p. 11). Includes failure to provide for and supervise the child (p. 11).

Mandated Reporting and Other Important Laws

It is important to work with your local department of children and family services to understand mandated reporting and other laws governing abuse and neglect in your state. The advice in this post is general and while we have pulled examples from specific laws, you are bound by thelaws of your state.

Learn more about this topic and several others with our Certified Safety Member Course. It is available as an online video-based training that can be taken anytime and from anywhere using your own computer. Each section ends with a short test to demonstrate an understanding of the material. Once you've completed all 7 sections, you will be certified for 2-years with Sheepdog Church Security.

Develop Policies with Child Protection and Elder Abuse Avoidance in Mind

Sheepdog Church Security is dedicated to guiding churches toward policies that keep our most vulnerable members safe. The following are guidelines to help you do the same.

Zero Tolerance for Sexual Conduct

A few years ago it was reported that only 43% of U.S. churches had policies related to abuse. It has been found that these policies are a strong first step in preventing abuse so make sure to have one. One way to start is by working with your insurance company and police department to:

  • Prioritize the most important policies for your church
  • Educate you about safeguarding at-risk congregation members
  • Understand civil and criminal penalties that could apply both to perpetrators and to the church

A policy is a start, but it is nothing if not enforced. In addition to having a zero-tolerance policy on abuse, churches must also "eliminate all inappropriate sexual conduct (including jokes, inappropriate dress, and sexual innuendos)" (Wurtle 2012, p. 2445).

Two Adults Present

Experts agree that all activities involving children should have two adults present and that they should not be spouses. If a child needs to be removed from the group both the child and adult should remain within the eyesight of the other worker (Vieth et al., 2012, p. 324). If an adult shares sleeping accommodations with children, at least two adults should be present (pp. 324-325). Events should take place in public, not in a home (p. 325).

Avoid One-on-One Contact

Children should never be alone with adults, even with those the parents' trust.

Other Important Policies to Aid in Child Protection

Make sure to develop policies that cover the following:

  • Age-Limited Substances: Prohibit drugs, alcohol, and tobacco at all youth events. Sometimes victims are first violated through these "sexual boundary violations" such as being offered a drink (Wurtele, 2012, p. 2449).
  • Technology: Do not allow adults to connect with anyone under 18. Any minor child cannot legally make decisions for themselves so the easiest policy is to instruct all conversations about a child be directed to the parents. One exception is to ask parents to provide children's cell phone numbers which can be handy for broadcast texts.
  • Privacy: Prohibit the use of cameras of any kind in bathrooms, bedrooms, and any other area where children may be undressing. Give children as much privacy as possible while helping them with toileting or bathing.
  • Vet adults: There is no reason to not have separate vetting procedures for people who work with children in the church. Check their references, interview them, do the criminal background check, and consider six months of active church membership prior to working with children.
  • Invest in Training and Supervision: All adults working with children should be trained in mandated reporting laws specific to the state by an expert. Training should also include these and any other policies. Staff members and volunteers must be adequately supervised and evaluated.
  • Environmental Policies: Doors should remain open at all times as well as any interior window coverings. Church safety team members and other staff should routinely walk through classroom areas.

Checking Children In and Out

Does your church have a policy for checking children in and out and monitoring their attendance? These policies alert staff to missing children quickly. Children are also less likely to go home with the wrong adult. Have a clipboard or notebook with a sign-in sheet, check drivers' licenses and have employees and volunteers check-in and out, too. Here are some helpful recommendations from Posthuma (2012):

  • Require the time and date the parent (or approved adult) checked the child in and out.
  • Make sure to have a file on each child that contains:
    • Care instructions
    • Medical or special needs instructions
    • All communications with parents regarding the care of children under 18 months
    • Approved adults the child may arrive and leave with.
    • The child's schedule and the adults assigned to each activity
    • Notes on court-appointed custody restrictions
    • Copy of all incident reports regarding accidents, injuries, fights, discipline, and events. Record even minor incidents.
  • Develop a safe environment for reporting abuse. It has been found that children are less likely to report if they feel they will face accusations or that their abuser will be protected.
  • Create an accountability structure including checks and balances. Hold people accountable for theirs.
  • Encourage all adults to take care of themselves. Wurtele (2012) found that many priests who sexually abused children recently experienced increased work stressors (p. 2450).
  • Make sure everyone understands whistleblower responsibilities and ramifications (p. 2450-2451)
  • Collaborate with social services providers.

What to do When Abuse is Suspected

A reminder that churches must work with local authorities to understand and abide by the law.

How do you know if a child is being abused? Some children will disclose. Some children exhibit warning signs. Children who are:

  • Fearful or excessively watchful
  • Wearing ill-fitting or weather-inappropriate
  • Have bad hygiene
  • Act in a way that is not age-appropriate
  • Have frequent bruises or injuries
  • Have trouble walking or sitting
  • Avoid certain people

may be experiencing abuse.

Signs of financial abuse of vulnerable adults may include warning signs like looking "neglected or malnourished, despite the fact that [they have] adequate financial means to support" themselves (Staughair, 2011. Pp. 52-53).

Train staff to handle reports of child abuse:

  1. Stay calm. Children may shut down if they sense a reaction of denial, shock, or disgust.
  2. Never question. Allow the child to talk and use their own words. Never ask the child questions. This can damage a later case. Authorities will bring in someone trained in the forensic interviewing of a child to ask any questions.
  3. Tell the child they did the right thing.
  4. Follow the processes outlined in your state's laws.

Many states require mandated reporting simply upon suspecting abuse or neglect. Follow your state's laws immediately.

For in-depth information and how to teach your Church Safety Team and others about mandated reporting, child protection, and handling the abuse of vulnerable adults, take a look at our book available online now.