Failures around child protection policies are heartbreaking on a personal and organizational level because children get hurt. A recent case, Allen v. Zion Baptist Church of Braselton1, describes such a tragedy. The facts alleged in the case went like this. A new church volunteer sexually assaulted a teenage boy. The family sued the church because it had not (yet) checked the volunteer’s background and references. One of the references was a forgery, and the supposed reference had some concerns about the volunteer that would have come out had she been called. The court refused to dismiss the case, holding that the church might be liable for negligence in failing to supervise. While we don’t know the end result yet, there are lessons to be learned from this case.
One: Put Your Polices in Place and Also Carry Them Out.
It was good that the church had a policy for background checks and references. It would have been much better if it had carried out its policy and not let the volunteer engage in the program until the checking was done. Even though the volunteer was new, he moved very quickly to commit a sexual assault.
Two: Checking References is Extremely Important.
While criminal background checks are good to do, they rarely catch potential problems. Following up on references with direct personal contact is much more effective, especially if you have the prospective employee or volunteer sign a waiver that allows the reference to talk freely. In this case, the fake reference had serious doubts about the person.
Three: Think About the Capable Guardian, the Potential Victim, and the Potential Criminal.
Child sexual abuse happens when three factors all occur at once.
- The child must be a potential victim (not all children are equally likely to suffer abuse, depending on their own situation, temperament, and so on).
- Someone who wishes to commit child sexual abuse must be present and looking for an opportunity. For instance, a potential offender may target a youth program, as apparently happened here—or a school, a camp, and so on.
- The environment must be lacking a capable guardian; that is, the safeguards in place are not sufficient to prevent the abuse from happening.
A religious organization can short-circuit abuse at any of these three points. Everyone—adults and children—can be trained to recognize warning signals and act on them.
Four: Put Safeguards in the Environment.
Every program can have a set of expectations about how church employees and volunteers behave. These expectations can include having only supervised contact with young people. This case alleges that the new volunteer played pool with the victim, and was able to be unsupervised with the victim long enough to choke him until he passed out. Next, he led him off church property into the woods, where he assaulted the boy.
Five: You have a Reasonable Duty of Care.
As much as we desire to protect all children, it may not always be possible to prevent abuse. Sexual offenders are clever and determined. Keeping children safe is a cooperative effort between parents and others who work with young people. But the duty of a church or other organization is to use reasonable care. That care is related to the “reasonably foreseeable risk of harm.” This case was almost dismissed in favor of the church. If the facts had been slightly different, it probably would have been. The two factors the court seemed to consider most significant were that the references were not checked (and would have shown a problem) and the volunteer was allowed unsupervised access to young people.