How should a mission approach child safety? The most obvious example is related to child abuse arena, but a broad-based approach of considering potential harm to a child may open up other areas to consider. And while normally parents are responsible for the well-being of a child, arguably the mission bears some responsibility for whether children are placed in an environment where they will be adequately cared for. For one thing, the mission has more information about that environment than the family members do, especially before their first time on the field.
Most mission organizations work hard on prevention of child abuse, including background checks, prevention, and training. Where an incident is alleged to have happened, the organization will consider aspects of harm to the child, and not just the aspect of who is responsible for bad behavior. In some cases, inappropriate behavior may be perpetrated by another child. In others, adults may be acting in ways that harm a child out of their own precarious mental or emotional state. They may need treatment or support, not punishment. There can be harm without intentional misconduct by an adult actor. While responsibility for the situation (and even law enforcement reporting) are part of the analysis, evaluating harm to the child comes first.
Yet abuse is not the only way in which a child can suffer harm, particularly in an environment like missions, where children are taken outside of their familiar environment to another country. School, medical care, the social environment, and general safety may all be problematic from the outside environment. Within the family, another factor is the personality and makeup of the individual child.
Before taking a child into a given location, several things should be evaluated. Is the region reasonably safe from violence, such that it is responsible to take children there? Is medical care adequate? Is schooling available? Will the adults in the situation—the child’s family and others—have the intellectual and emotional resources to meet the child’s needs? These questions can be asked by the field director, the team, and those evaluating the parents for serving overseas.
Also of importance is the individual makeup of the child. Does the child have a difficult or fragile temperament, such as being unusually shy or unusually defiant? If so, adjusting to an overseas situation may be difficult. Does the child have disabilities that would affect his adjustment overseas, such as language delay or an auditory processing disorder that would prevent his learning the local language? Does the child have a developmental disorder like autism that would prevent him from adjusting socially? Does the child have learning disabilities that cannot be addressed with the local schooling available?
The characteristics of the child are likely more known by the family than the mission. How will the mission get information? First, the mission can ask the parents about the child’s personality, and if there are any reasons to be concerned. If there are (or may be) disabilities, the mission can ask for screening and evaluation of the child. The mission can also require regular testing of school children on the field to make sure they are developing academically. If they are not, follow-up testing could be required to identify problems and remedies.
While it is not certain to what degree the mission has legal responsibility to children under its care, practically and morally it is well worthwhile to make sure that all members of the mission are thriving—which includes the children of missionaries. In screening and preparing missionaries, the mission should consider all these aspects of child safety.