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Safe churches a priority for Adventist Risk Management

With ‘Child Protection Plan,’ local leaders can better protect kids

Safe churches a priority for Adventist Risk Management

Adventist Risk Management’s new child protection program backs up church guidelines on child abuse with practical methods of training and screening employees and volunteers who work closely with minors. [photo: iStockphoto]

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A new child protection program from the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s risk management organization is galvanizing the church’s ongoing efforts to shield minors from abuse and misconduct.

Through training for adults and children, as well as background screening for employees and volunteers who work closely with minors, Adventist Risk Management’s Child Protection Plan equips local leaders to make the church a safe place, says ARM Vice President and Chief Risk Management Officer Arthur Blinci.

“It’s part of our mission to help protect the ministries of the Seventh-day Adventist Church,” says Blinci, citing Children’s Ministries, Youth Ministries, Pathfinders and Adventurers as a “core component” of that mission. “Faith-based communities have a moral, ethical and legal responsibility to protect children from harm when they’re in our care,” he says.

The church has made significant strides toward achieving that goal. In North America, many church employees and volunteers are mandated reporters, Blinci says. This means they have a legal obligation to report abuse or allegations of abuse that occur within the church setting. By 2003, the church’s North American Division had drafted protocol for dealing with sexual misconduct and child abuse. Late last year, the division voted a new child protection policy mandating that every level of church administration implement a training and screening program for volunteers.

The Adventist world church has also been proactive about writing guidelines and voting policies to protect minors. Indeed, at the church’s General Conference Session in 2010, delegates voted to add to the Church Manual specific language guiding the appointment of church employees and volunteers who work closely with minors. They agreed that adults leading out in Pathfinders, Vacation Bible School, Children’s Ministries and Sabbath School programs “must meet church and legal standards and requirements, such as background checks or certification.”

Still, Blinci says that policies, guidelines and good intentions only go so far. Adventist Risk Management routinely handles a couple dozen cases of child abuse every year and has spent some $30 million on indemnity cases over the past two decades. Many U.S. states have open statutes of limitations, allowing older claims of abuse to be raised and litigated.  

What the church needs are tools and resources to put in the hands of local church administrators and leaders, he says.

“We’ve heard for so many years from church members, ‘How do we do it?” Blinci says.

Now Adventist Risk Management is providing an answer. Through a partnership with Shield The Vulnerable, the organization’s new Child Protection Plan offers online training for adults on addressing abuse, neglect, predators, bullying, boundaries and respect. It also provides age-appropriate information for children on recognizing and reporting abuse.

Shield The Vulnerable -- a California-based service provider that frequently works with faith-based, non-profit organizations -- also offers background screening for employees and volunteers as a “critical” line of defense, Blinci says.

“So often, especially on the volunteer side, there’s typically no screening. You want to volunteer for Children’s Ministries? Great, come on, we can use you,” he says. “Now, when potential volunteers know before they even apply that you’re going to run a criminal background check, if they have a propensity, they’re not even going to volunteer.”

While creating the Child Protection Plan, ARM discovered that the church’s Lake Union Conference had already partnered with Shield The Vulnerable and piloted its training and screening programs in the U.S. states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and a portion of Minnesota.

Blinci expects all 59 of the North American Division’s conferences will follow suit in the coming months. Through Shield The Vulnerable, a conference or other administrative unit creates an account that tracks progress as they train volunteers and perform background screenings. “It goes all the way down to the local church and school level,” he says.

ARM resource kits for local churches include PowerPoint presentations, a video clip, a sample child protection policy and reference information.

While North American Division policy doesn’t mandate the use of Shield The Vulnerable, it does require some type of training and screening. “There are other ways a conference may choose to do their own training and orientation, but they have to do something,” Blinci says.

“Abuse of children is not only prevalent in society, but is also occurring within our churches,” says Phyllis Washington, Children’s Ministries director for the North American Division. “By recognizing that the problem exists in our congregations, we are taking a crucial step toward providing a safe environment, restoring trust, promoting healing and ultimately preventing child abuse.”

While the Shield The Vulnerable program may not fully apply to the world church due to differences in reporting laws, some of its elements are universally relevant and can be tailored to fit local needs, Blinci says. 

“The goal is to protect our kids, which are the greatest resources we have. Hopefully now there are no excuses.”

Click here to download Child Protection Plan resources and references from Adventist Risk Management.