While there are many elements of ministering to, with, and for youth, primary among them is the safety and wellbeing of children. Safe environments don’t just happen; they are created and maintained through intentional and ongoing efforts. Here are five essential components of a safe environment.
1. The Embrace of Our Compelling Goal
Why we do what we do matters. The reason why flows from our faith and compels us to honor and protect all human beings, especially the most vulnerable. Without an emphasis on this understanding of our goal, we risk failing because of a lack of commitment to the individuals. Without embracing the true goal of these measures, we can settle for background checks and training while failing to follow through vigilantly in compliance with policies and procedures that are designed to ensure children’s safety. When bringing new adults into a program, explain the reasons for the measures with which they will be asked to comply. For adults to enthusiastically support the policies and procedures that are laid out in diocesan and parish guidelines, they need to understand the compelling goal of child safety. Safe environment is a ministry in and of itself.
2. Proper Vetting of All Adult Employees and Volunteers
The mandate for background checks on all adult employees and volunteers who are engaged in youth programming has been critical to establishing safe environments, because it uncovers past actions that would make some potential volunteers unfit for work with or supervision of young people. We must ensure that those we engage to interact with our youngest members are fit for these special ministries.
3. Training for Adults Who Work with Children and Youth
“Just say ‘No!’” and “Stranger Danger” are important tools for children. However, children often lack the maturity, physical strength, and even authority to prevent abuse. Adults must be the protective guardians. Adults must be engaged in establishing and maintaining safe environments for children. Therefore, vetted adults need to participate in the required training, which should consist of the following:
• A code of conduct for adults ministering to/with children
• Establishment of appropriate boundaries and interactions between adults and children
• Policies and procedures to follow to ensure safety, such as appropriate adult/child ratios and the use of appropriate venues for activities
• Recognition of signs of abuse in a child
• Knowledge of behavioral warning signs of abusers
• Proper actions to take when abuse is suspected.
4. Compliance with Policies and Procedures
Safeguarding the safety of our most vulnerable requires adherence to an established code of conduct, policies, and procedures. Individual noncompliance must be addressed immediately. The number one identifying trait of abusers is that they don’t think that the rules apply to them.
5. Formation for Children and Youth
Children should receive ongoing and sustained formation to ensure their safety. Training for children should occur every year, with age-appropriate materials and a focus on developing the necessary skills for making healthy choices. These lessons belong within the structure of regular faith formation. Children need to hear the message that they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect within safe and right relationships; children also need to hear that if a relationship isn’t right, the adult community wants to help them.