A friend in another state shared with me privately, and I’m going to paraphrase to guard anonymity: “My parish doesn’t do the background checks.”
I was floored.
I know child-safety policies vary from state to state, and I appreciate that paperwork can get lost or delayed. But to blatantly violate your diocese’s procedures, and common sense, out of I-don’t-what-excuse? No. Let me start with Rule Number One for effective abuse-prevention policies:
You have to follow the procedures.
It does absolutely no good to write up a diocesan or parish safety policy, and then fail to follow it. (Tip for parents: There is somebody in your parish or your diocese who keeps records of all the completed background checks. You can ask to see the proof that your child’s catechists have a clean record. The catechists themselves might also have a copy of their completed paperwork.)
All procedures and policies need to be explained in plain English.
Your diocese may have a set of official policies written up in impeccable legalese. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. But imagine for a moment a confirmation-prep program that went like this:
Hey kids, we have this Catechism of the Catholic Church that explains everything you need to know about what Catholics believe. You can read a copy for free on the Vatican’s website. So you guys just sign this form saying, “I’ve read, understand, and accept all the teachings in the Catechism of the Catholic Church,” and the bishop’ll be here next month to confirm those of you who’ve signed your form.
Nope. Doesn’t work that way. Just like your average teenager doesn’t whiz through the big Catechism and have it down pat, your average parish volunteer is not a lawyer. If the official policies aren’t written in plain, easy-to-understand language, someone’s got to translate. What are some ways you can do this?
- Write up a handbook, hand-out, or set of slides that explain the policy in clear terms.
- Create a FAQ page for answering new questions that arise over time. No policy can anticipate every possible situation.
- If in-person training sessions are used to explain the policy, record a video of the session and post it on the web, for review and for off-site training.
Have a designated contact person who is capable of quickly and authoritatively answering questions. Make a procedure for documenting questions and answers, so that there’s no confusion. For example, follow-up a phone call with a brief e-mail reviewing the answers to the questions posed on the phone. If your contact person is getting flooded with questions, you need to go back to square one and improve your training materials.
Test out your procedures on-site.
Figure out exactly what you need to do to follow the policy. Here’s an example of a classic scenario that seems simple, but requires some on-site planning:
- An adult should not be alone with a child.
- “I need to go potty.”
During on-site implementation, figure out how exactly to handle this situation. What’s your building look like? What kind of restroom facilities do you have, where are they, and who has access to them? How many adults are in your classroom? How many working as hall monitors? Are your students old enough to go the restroom alone? Or are you working in the nursery, the preschool, or with a special-needs student who requires assistance?
Take your all-purpose procedures, and develop specific methods for managing common situations in your building, with your staff, and with your students. Then make sure everyone understands and follows them. For the on-site training, physically walk your team through the processes you’ve created. Don’t sit in the parish hall talking about restroom breaks; go to a classroom, and walk step-by-step from raised-hand, to restroom, to all-done-and-back-to-class.
For policies concerning social media and other communications, plan to host technical sessions with a laptop and a slide projector, so that you can show your volunteers exactly what you mean when you say, “Facebook Page” versus “Facebook Profile”, or whatever it is that is essential to your safety procedures. Do not assume every member of your team is technically savvy. Some volunteers may want or need one-on-one training to confirm they are using their social media accounts correctly, or to help them set up a separate e-mail account for communication with minors.
In the on-site plans, don’t overlook “invisible” students: Minors helping out in programs other than youth ministry; the kid that gets dropped off early, picked up late, or walks to church all alone; the teen-aged former student of your kindergarten teacher, who drops by each week to say hello before class.
This is a lot of work! It’s one thing to write up a policy, it’s another to implement the policy in a way that actually protects children. It’s essential that our abuse-prevention policies aren’t merely words on a page and a collection of signatures. If a policy or procedure is worth having, it is worth understanding it correctly, and using it consistently.
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