Con Cuidado — Preventing Abuse in Special Needs Ministry

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As sometimes happens, I had another blog post cued up for today.  How I wish I was publishing that post for you now instead of this one!  But a story has hit the news that every leader in our position needs to be aware of.  Reported May 14, 2013 in Chicago area publications is the charging of a Willow Creek Church volunteer who allegedly sexually abused a child with special needs in his care.  While the church had taken all of the appropriate steps of doing background checks on volunteers, one small misstep of allowing an adult to be alone with a child for even a short period of time resulted in an incident that none of us in ministry would ever wish to see.

Years ago, my treasured sister who has worked in Southern California for most of her adult life acquainted me with a terrific Hispanic turn of phrase that I have long since valued.  “Con Cuidado” translates into English as “with great care, carefully, closely”.  I have always liked to translate it as “Go with great caution,” and this is what makes the phrase so very appropriate to engrave upon the minds of every one of us in special needs ministry.

The fact is that given the right set of circumstances, any one of us could be the church or ministry in the Willow Creek story.  Any one of us who have served for any amount of time knows that things can easily get chaotic with our vulnerable population, and that the number of volunteers can sometimes be spotty.  But we must be ever-vigilant in keeping our eyes on those entrusted to our care.  Best practices must be followed without lapse or sloppiness.  This means that we never, ever allow a child to be alone one-on-one with an adult.  It means the following as well:

  • Don’t ever, EVER take a volunteer without a background check out of desperation.  You may think you know that person well enough, but you would be heartbroken to find out you are wrong.
  • Train your volunteers on best practices and policies for assuring abuse or high-risk behaviors are avoided.  (The Inclusive Church has a good post from 2010 that briefly details these procedures.)
  • One of my esteemed colleagues who has asked to remain anonymous has shared with me, “Predators are good at seeking out vulnerable kids and vulnerable ministries. That’s where they’ll find the most success. If a church is implementing safe child policies, then predators will either find the weak spot or, in the absence of a weak spot, move on to a different church or organization where they can be successful in perpetrating abuse.  Also, predators are often skilled manipulators, including manipulating church leaders who think their gut instinct will help them avoid a situation like this.  We can’t rely on our guts when it comes to keeping kids safe, as well as keeping other vulnerable groups safe such as adults with developmental disabilities.  Too much is at stake to pridefully rely on our intellect or intuition about people.  Finally, policies must be in place and in practice.  Just having them in writing isn’t enough; they must be communicated, and every person in your ministry must be trained.”
  • Another anonymous associate of mine shares that an abuse in a parallel ministry occurred with someone that they unwittingly served alongside.  “Sin is pervasive and all the safeguards you can use might not be enough. Do all you can to protect the precious ones in your care. Years later, our church is still wounded in certain places due to the aftermath of our situation, and I never, never, never want any of your churches or families to go through that pain.”
  • In case you hadn’t noticed from the two previous bullet points, churches and ministries hate openly talking about this.  However, we must remember not to sweep such issues under the carpet.  If an incident is reported to you as a leader, always take it seriously and follow up with the proper response.  Be aware of mandatory reporting laws and do not waste a moment in getting those above you involved if you have any reason to suspect something inappropriate.
  • Make certain that there is appropriate liability insurance coverage to protect your church or ministry in the case of harm coming to those you serve at the hands of a volunteer or undetected predator.

While this latest tale involving our friends at Willow Creek is unfortunate, we can also take away from the situation many lessons from the way that they responded to the incident.  Willow Creek should be applauded and imitated in how they dealt with the aftermath.  They wasted no time in contacting authorities, immediately denied the volunteer all access to children, revisited their policies, refreshed the training of their teams, and installed additional surveillance cameras in child care areas.  We should do nothing less in the same set of circumstances.

Con cuidado, friends!

What precautions have you set in place to prevent abuse of the vulnerable population you serve?  What questions do you have about setting policies in place?  As tough as this subject is, we would love to hear from you.

Image courtesy of: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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