Legal Issues

Legal Issues

It was a day that began like any other day. One filled with appointments and projects to be completed. I had a luncheon appointment with a couple that had children involved in our children’s and youth ministries. Little did I know how life would be changed by that meeting.

It was during that time that I learned of the sexual abuse committed against this precious couple’s children by a former volunteer. He was a man who had been active in the ministry of my predecessor. Why was I the one to learn about this? I became so sick I could not eat. Then I heard the parent’s question, "What do we do now, Pastor Kathy?"

This was the question I had hoped never to have to answer. My heart ached for the children and their family. My pulse was racing with the nervousness of knowing I could not hide from this issue. Thoughts for the children, the families, and the church were overwhelming. Were there more victims? My prayer was, "God help me because this is too big for me."

Nineteen months later, the volunteer was given a 21–year sentence for the sexual abuse of children. Our church survived the abuse case with many "worse case scenarios" played out. No one involved with children or teens wants to hear that even one has been abused in any manner. From personal experience, I can now state that even though I would not want to walk through another legal case, it can be done.

Perspective

First, perspective must be gained. Over reacting does not guarantee your ministry or program will never face legal issues. Looking at every person as an abuser or each field trip as a potential lawsuit causes one to lose sleep and age quickly. On the other hand, under reacting will not keep you from dealing with legal issues. The lack of professional knowledge about legal issues does not release one from legal obligations.

A proper balance and perspective must be held by both the leadership and personnel. This perspective includes an emphasis on prevention and an understanding of the need for preparation. The prevention includes screening volunteers, receiving proper licensing, and enacting appropriate policies and procedures. It also includes a commitment to network with people who know the law.

Volunteers

Church–based programs are susceptible to legal issues for two reasons: churches tend to be trusting and unsuspecting, and churches tend always to be in need of volunteers. All volunteers who come in contact with the children or youth must be screened. This includes pastors, office staff, janitors, and any person who is consistently in the building where the children or youth meet. Screening includes the selection process and the supervision once the person holds a place of leadership in the ministry program.

Volunteer screening and supervision protects the children, the leadership, and the volunteers. It not only reduces the risk of incidents, but addresses the first two questions asked in case of an incident: Tell me who was with the children and how were they supervised.

Volunteer Screening

• Volunteer screening should include the following:

  • • An employment application
  • • Use of a screening form
  • • A personal interview
  • • Reference checks
  • • A criminal records check
  • • Identity of the person confirmed by requiring a photo identity (i.e., driver’s license)

From my experience, a few other key issues concerning volunteer screening were discovered. First, keep all personnel and volunteer records from the past. My access to these records proved that a criminal record check and reference checks were made in reference to our case’s offender. Second, all sensitive records should be kept in a fireproof safe. We had a fire in our building and almost lost all records. Our lawyer also recommended a duplicate copy be kept in another safe location, in case of a natural disaster or in case of misplaced files.

It is important to update these records yearly. This includes reviewing applications, references, and reinterviewing personnel. It is also advisable to periodically run new criminal record checks. Sometimes, offenses occur after the initial check has been made. Finally, remember that even if a records check comes back clean, proper polices and procedures are necessary for the protection of the children and the personnel.

With our legal case, I later learned that child abuse charges had previously been made against the offender, but had been dropped when the parents of the victim chose not to have the victim testify in court. This accusation did not show up on a fingerprint check or criminal records check due to the fact that a formal arrest had not been made and the charges never became a conviction. Prevention is connected to policies and procedures being developed and being implemented.

Volunteer Supervision

Volunteer supervision is also vital. It should include the following:

  • • Establish proper policies and procedures.
  • • Ask volunteers and leaders to agree to follow these policies and procedures.
  • • Provide training to current volunteers and leaders.
  • • Provide adequate supervision at all times.
  • • Enforce the Two–Adult rule and buddy system (70 percent of noncustodial abuse occurs in the rest room).
  • • Correctly enforce the policy on the transfer of custody. (Most states hold a program responsible for the child through junior high age until the child is transferred to the custody of the parent or guardian.)
  • • Keep parental/guardian permission forms on file for all programs and events. Make a second copy to carry with you to all off site activity.

When a Problem Occurs

The two remaining critical areas include reporting obligations and responding to allegations. From personal experience, these areas cannot be left to the attitude of "I will learn about these only if I have to." If you reach the point of needing to report an incident or respond to an allegation, it is already too late. There is not the time or the emotional energy available to explore these two areas after the fact. This preparation must be done prior to the establishment of the ministry or the program.

Reporting

Reporting obligations vary from state to state. It is of vital importance that the ministry leader obtain the state’s specific guidelines by contacting the Department of Social and Health Services or appropriate government agency. Most states have a brochure explaining the specific mandatory laws on reporting abuse. All leaders and volunteers are held responsible for this knowledge and should have a copy of it. Reporting obligations include the following:

  • Know the definition of abuse in your state.
  • An example is "Child abuse or neglect shall mean the injury, sexual abuse, or negligent treatment or maltreatment of a child by any person under circumstances which indicate that the children’s health, welfare and safety is harmed thereby." (Washington, RCW 26.44.020)
  • The state could further define neglect as "Negligent treatment or maltreatment shall mean an act or omission which evinces a serious disregard of consequences of such magnitude as to constitute a clear and present danger to the child’s health, welfare and safety." (Washington, RCW 26.44.020)
  • Establish a reporting procedure.
  • This includes an understanding of possible indicators and symptoms of abuse; knowing the basis for making a report; documenting and journaling all concerns; and appointing one person to make all reports to the proper authorities when necessary.

One person should be designated as the reporter for the church or program. This person should be knowledgeable of the types of abuse: physical injury, mental injury, sexual abuse, neglect, and death. Also, abuse perpetrated by a custodial person is to be reported to the Department of Social and Health Services. Abuse perpetrated by a noncustodial person is to be reported to the local law enforcement agency. If in doubt, contact Department of Social and Health Services, and they will provide assistance.

Responding to Allegations

A plan for responding to allegations is the fourth critical area. Many lawsuits against churches are related not to the actual abuse occurrence, but rather to the church’s response to the abuse allegation. Many churches have no plan and then find themselves frustrated and not able to recover. Instead, be prepared in advance and then pray that the preparation is not needed. There are resource people who are available to assist in preparing to respond to an allegation.

Networking with available resources is an aspect of responding to allegations. Prepare a list of qualified Christian counselors in the area. Learn what is available through local and state agencies. Our counties’ Sexual Assault Center was one of the greatest resources in dealing with our church’s legal case. Become acquainted with a lawyer in case professional legal advice is needed. Law enforcement agencies have a community relations officer or a public information officer. Meet with this person and make use of the agencies’ resources. Select a spokesperson that has good people skills and is detail oriented to deal with media. Then prepare this person to speak under pressure, on camera, and to a reporter.

Know what is included in the church’s insurance policy. Does the new ministry program require additional coverage? Is there coverage for high–risk events, such as water activities, archery, mountain climbing, repelling? What is the coverage for the leaders and volunteers in case of an accident, abuse allegations, or law suit? What is the coverage for use of church vehicles or personal vehicles used to transport children or teens? Is a driving records check required or is there an age requirement for the drivers? Lack of knowledge is not an admissible defense if something does occur.

Finally, develop a step–by–step plan for responding to an allegation. The lawyer who assisted our church gave the following recommendations:

  • • Refrain from engaging in denial, minimization, or blame.
  • • Document all efforts in handling the incident. This must be done on a daily basis since many times the investigation and the court case may continue for months or years.
  • • Immediately report the incident to the authorities, your insurance company, church attorney, and denominational officials. Our insurance company gave us a claim number upon placing the initial call. However, due to handling the case well and the grace of God, the claim number was never used.
  • • Leave the investigation to the proper authorities. The role of the church is to provide spiritual care and comfort. Provide pastoral care for the victim and the family. Do not try to be a detective or investigator.
  • • If the accused is a leader or volunteer, remove the accused from the position until allegations are cleared or substantiated. Respect the rights of the accused.
  • • Utilize one person to serve as the spokesperson to the authorities and the media. When dealing with the media, tell only facts and refrain from opinions. Keep statements brief and to the point so that misquoting may be kept minimal.

Who is included on the list of mandatory reporters? States vary regarding this issue. Make sure you are aware of who is responsible to report abuse or neglect. They include medical practitioners, professional school personnel, social services counselor, coroners, pharmacists, child–care providers and their employees, employees of DSHS, juvenile probation officers, law enforcement, and any adult who resides with a child suspected to have been abused. Beyond being a mandatory reporter, there is a moral mandate to report.

Licensing Issues

When is it necessary for a church–based ministry or program to be licensed? The answer to this question varies from state to state. Before establishing a new program, learn the answer to this question by calling your state agency. It is not sufficient to guess that the program does not need to be licensed. If licensing is required, be aware this is not a quick process or an inexpensive one.

The Department of Social and Health Services web site gives clear information. These guidelines will assist you in discerning whether or not your program qualifies for licensing or is exempt. If in doubt, ask the DSHS.

Notice

Sample Document—No liability is assumed by those who have prepared or distributed this material. All material, policies, and procedures should be reviewed by a competent attorney before implementing.

This article is from
The Touch–a–Life Handbook. Touch–a–Life, a creative,
compassionate ministry for
children and youth, is a joint effort by
Children’s Ministries, Nazarene Compassionate
Ministries USA/Canada,
and Nazarene Youth International