TBMB Administrative Director William Maxwell and Childhood Ministry Specialist Vicki Hulsey discuss 12 things churches can do to protect children and others in the church from sexual predators and sexual abuse. The pair also cover the legal responsibilities churches and everyone has when it comes to reporting suspected abuse.
Chris Turner: Hello and welcome in to this edition of Radio B&R. I’m your host, Chris Turner, director of communications for the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board. And today my two guests are William Maxwell, our administration director here at the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board, and then also Vicki Hulsey, who is childhood ministry specialist. Both of them have been working in Tennessee for quite some time.
Chris Turner: Our issue that we wanna talk about today and just really cover is here recently in this week when we’re recording this there has been a series of articles that have released in the Houston Chronicle related to sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention. And we’ve had churches that have contacted us and then also just through social media and in comments that have been made. There is an asking for help in what churches need to do, and that’s what we really wanna focus on. So William, and Vicki, I appreciate y’all being a part of this today.
William Maxwell: Thank you. Glad to be here.
Chris Turner: So let’s just jump in to this. This is not the first time this week that this has been an issue. This is something that obviously churches have dealt with for a long time, and that the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board has been helping with for a long time. Vicki just talk a little bit from your experience about what you have helped churches with related to the protection of minors in churches.
Vicki Hulsey: One of the biggest things is trying to help churches understand the importance of background screening, and why that needs to be done. Often when I’m talking to churches about that and recommending that, the response I get back is usually, “That won’t happen here,” or, “Our church is too small, everybody already knows everybody, and so we’ll know if a stranger comes in.” But as I go and continue to talk with them and share some statistics with them, they’re often shocked when they hear statistics that reveal that most children, or minors, are not abused by a stranger, but by somebody they know and trust.
Vicki Hulsey: And that goes even deeper than looking at the physical and emotional trauma that can happen from that, because when we look at that word trust, from infancy, children are learning to trust their parents, they’re learning to trust teachers that they can see and hear before they learn to trust a God that they can’t see or hear. So that ability to trust is really, really important as a spiritual milestone, and we need to pay attention to that, because while the physical and emotional, and mental impact of abuse can be devastating, we also have to look at the possibility of the spiritual impact that can result from when that trust has been shattered. And that kind of an experience could be the very thing that stands in the way of a child accepting Christ his savior.
Chris Turner: Yeah I think one thing that you mentioned there that we definitely don’t wanna just blow past, but people really need to hear, is the vast majority of instances when there has been some sort of abuse with a minor, that it is not from some outside predator that has kind of crept into the flock, that this is coming from someone that they have a trust relationship with, whether that is a family member, or someone else in the church, or from a minister of some kind. That really is the front line area where the risk is, is that correct?
Vicki Hulsey: Yes. These children are taught they can trust these people in their lives, but also they believe that, they see that, and they trust those people because they feel like they’re in a safe place.
Chris Turner: So, William, you’ve been working a long time as well with churches, and just from a church admin, and church policy, you’ve also done training for churches. When we talk about doing a background screening, that can mean a lot, but as you advise churches, what are some things that you advise them about related to background screenings?
William Maxwell: Well the first thing is to make sure that you’re using a reputable firm to do those screenings. Make sure that they are checking the national sex offender registry, they’re checking national criminal databases, but also state criminal databases. And it should also include multiple states, you should get the address from whoever you’re screening as to where they’ve lived for at least the last 5-10 years, and then check all of those states.
Chris Turner: When a church says is a screening really that significant, or does it help, how would you respond to that?
William Maxwell: The likelihood of actually screening someone and them showing up as a predator is very low quite honestly, however, the mere fact that you are conducting the screening, and the potential predators know you are conducting the screening, means they’re probably gonna move on. One of the reasons churches have been hit with a lot of these predators is our school systems, the Boy Scouts, a lot of our other youth organizations where predators like to hang out, have gotten ahead of us on the screening process. So they have migrated to churches because they knew that it was an easier field.
Chris Turner: So Vicki, when you are working with a church in this area is this something that they often bring up or is this something that you’re proactive in asking them about what type of policies and procedures they have in place?
Vicki Hulsey: Many times if it’s in a standard situation where we’re doing trainings, let’s say Sunday school trainings, VBS, that kind of thing, then that is something that I will bring up. But many times it is the church that may have unfortunately had an incident happen and so now they’re trying to figure out how to deal with that. Or it could be a situation like what we’re dealing with now, when it’s in the news media, my call frequency goes way up, because they start getting afraid. So I even find if I do training during those times, the numbers attending training go up because they realize, hey this really could happen to us.
Chris Turner: Yeah it’s one of those things that, you know, kind of out of sight out of mind, and if it’s not hitting the news then people aren’t as front burner concerned than when it has hit like it has this week, then people really awareness, course it is a great opportunity to help them understand the importance of that. William, when we talk about, Vicki had mentioned that a lot of times they find out afterwards, or they’re contacting her afterwards, when a situation like this happens, what obligation does a church have, maybe a minister in the church, or an adult, or someone in the church. When a situation happens and there is an initial contact that this has happened, what obligation does a church have legally to deal with that situation?
William Maxwell: Tennessee’s law is very specific and very clear, it says that anyone, minister, teacher, Sunday school leader, softball coach, anyone that has reason to suspect that a child has been abused, is being abused, or quite frankly is not being cared for properly, has a legal responsibility to report that to the proper authorities. That could be to the local sheriff, it could be to the police department, or it could be to the department of children services in Tennessee. But that is a legal requirement, it’s a misdemeanor to fail to do that.
Chris Turner: Vicki, you have seen and heard of situations where there is a delay in that, or church staff needs to know what’s going on, or whatever that kind of thing, but it sounds like what William is saying is that, yes the church staff does need to know, but the authorities need to know. How do you advise church staffs, and pastors, and others, to really recognize the need there?
Vicki Hulsey: Well I think one, to understand that that reporting needs to happen immediately, and it needs to happen by the person that suspects that something has happened, or maybe they’ve seen something. They are obligated to report. So you don’t want to delay that process by going to your pastor or some other staff member first, and thinking that they can do that reporting for you. Sometimes people would rather somebody else do that, but as William said, that any person is responsible to report.
Chris Turner: Yeah, and a lot of times people don’t have the choice of whether they’re gonna be put in that position or not, if they’re the one that that’s reported to, they don’t have the option to pass that along, it’s their responsibility. Is that correct?
Vicki Hulsey: You can’t pass that off to somebody else.
William Maxwell: If you want to go to your pastor and say, “Pastor I just witnessed this,” or, “I suspect this,” and then go with him to the phone and make the call together that’s fine, but you can’t pass the buck.
Chris Turner: Yeah. You know last year I dealt with a church, and just trying to help them understand what to do in a particular situation. There actually was not an accusation made, it was more an insinuation by a mother that something might have happened. I told the person at the church, “You need to contact the authorities. You need to be proactive, and if it proves to be nothing then it’s nothing, but if it does turn into a full blown accusation then you’ve got problems because you knew about if for a while before you did it.” And so the next morning they called DCS and reported. Now fortunately this church had great policies in place, had all of their staff trained up, and so when DCS came out and looked at it, almost immediately looking at the situation they said, “There’s nothing here, and there’s nothing to this claim.” And the parents actually never fully did the claim, but DCS commended them for being proactive to do it.
Chris Turner: So we’ve got a list of 12 things a church can do to protect minors, and this will actually be on the Baptist and Reflector website related to the story on this. So be looking for that PDF, that’s something definitely that we’ll make available. But on this list there are some things that are just must haves. First of all is to even have a policy in place. Why do churches need to basically codify what it is that they’re policy related to minors is?
William Maxwell: Well as you explained with that church situation, it’s a mediating factor if you do have a situation, you have a lot better legal defense if you say, “We have a policy. We have a plan,” and even if an employee, or a volunteer, violated your policy, the church has a better protection. I think some churches don’t want to tread this way because they’re fearful of oh that’s gonna be long an involved, and require a lot of money, and a lot of investment. There are two things here that I would say would probably reduce the risk of sexual abuse happening in your church by 50%, and they don’t cost anything.
William Maxwell: Those are the two adult rule, and the six month rule. The two adult rule says that you never allow one adult to be alone with children, or minors, at any time anywhere, that that just never happens.
Chris Turner: And this particular church that I mentioned has that rule, and DCS saw that that rule was being fully abided by, so that was a big help for them.
William Maxwell: The other rule is the six month rule, which is where you don’t allow anyone to work with minors in your church until they’ve been a member of your church for six months. This protects you from those predators that are coming to your church just to find easy preys, they’ll move on because they know you take child care very seriously. And the other things you do will, just having the policies in place will prevent people from moving in that direction. And for example, the two adult rule is also a protection for those adults, because false accusations do occur. This protects, if there’s two adults in the room all the time, and they can’t be related, don’t need to be related, can’t be husband and wife, and don’t need to be related at all, the adults can testify as to what actually happened when that group was together. You don’t ever want isolated adults and minors together.
Chris Turner: Yeah, so Vicki, as you’ve talked with churches, and have been in churches that you’ve seen that have these policies in place, how have you helped them understand the security, or the confidence that gives parents when they come into a church, maybe they’re visiting and they see that the church takes that seriously and has that. How does that impact that churches ministry to its community?
Vicki Hulsey: Well it can be a huge impact one way or another. One of the things that surprises leaders many times is that visiting parents, when they’re coming to a church, in years past they often would want to know what kind of programs do you offer for my kids. But now the big concern is, right the first visit, is what policies do you have in place. Do you screen adults that work with preschoolers and children? And if that question is no, then they won’t even put ’em in a class. That has become a big deal. I even knew of a church situation that after there was some news media around a particular situation, that that parent, it was a large church and she had four children, she went to every area where kids could go in and she asked them the question, “If the pastor of this church came and try to pick up my child would you let him?” Because she wanted to see what they were gonna say.
Chris Turner: I think one of the things that you both are getting at is, it’s one thing to have policies, it’s another thing for people that are in the childcare program, or the church body as a whole, to be familiar with that. Just talk a little bit about, Vicki, how important it is for the church not only to have a policy, but to provide the training for the workers, and then also just general awareness for the church. Obviously not everybody in the church is dealing with minors, but why is it important for everybody in the church to understand that there is a childcare policy?
Vicki Hulsey: It’s extremely important, and the policies are only as effective as the way that you follow them. In other words, it does no good if you have ’em in writing, but you don’t enforce them. And so one thing that I really strongly encourage churches to have limited access as to who can enter an area that’s designated for preschoolers and children. So that’s something you do have to make sure your entire congregation is aware of so that they don’t get upset when you don’t allow them to walk down this hallway, because that limits that access.
Vicki Hulsey: When you have a policy in place about who can pick up children, which the very best is, the person that dropped them off is the person that picks them up. But if they have to, for some reason, let … Say if a mother brings the child, but the dad’s gonna pick up the child, then whatever she’s given at that point. If they’ve given a tag, of a number of some kind, then she would have to give that to the father for him to be able to pick up the child instead of her. So there has to be something in place. And you can’t ever break that, they may say, “Oh I left it in the pew.” Well then they have to go back to the pew and get it. And that upsets some people, but it’s worth that to keep something from happening, because you never know when there might be a divorce situation going on in a family, and you may not know all of the custody arrangements. There could easily be something that you don’t know.
Chris Turner: It would seem like in a larger church, that there would be less trouble with someone enforcing that than in a smaller church whereas you mentioned everybody knows everybody, is like, “Oh yeah she forgot to give me the tag, but I’ll go ahead and pick ’em up,” and them going ahead and giving the child to a father or a mother, the opposite. So there really is a diligence that has to be, like if this is the policy, even if it’s a small church, people just need to abide by the policy.
Vicki Hulsey: Exactly. It only takes one time for something to happen.
William Maxwell: The other thing is it does take an educational process for the church, and you create a culture of child safety. And what that does is really heightens everybody’s awareness if something is not right. If they see somebody with a child, because the church has talked about child protection and those kinds of things, those people become sensitive to, hey that just doesn’t look right. And you can actually protect a child because of that.
Chris Turner: In a crisis situation, crisis managers will talk about when they go back and look at a crisis, most crises just don’t blow up, you know an immediate crisis like an earthquake, or something like that. Most crises, somebody saw something along the way that didn’t look right, and they’re like, “Oh that’s probably just such and such,” and so even though they had that concern, they didn’t act upon it. And then in an active shooter situation, or even something like this, if something doesn’t look out of place, somebody needs to talk to somebody and get the story. And if it’s all good, then it’s all good. Nobody’s gonna be offended by the fact that somebody was being cautious and looking out for people’s children, that’s not gonna offend somebody. What the problem is, is if they knew something and didn’t say it and then there’s a problem, then that person obviously is gonna be guilty, or feel guilty for not having acted on that instinct.
Vicki Hulsey: As William said about the educational process, that is so, so important because if you’ve got a church that maybe there’s been a lady that’s been in the babies Sunday school class 40 years and you suddenly mail a letter to her with an application and that she’s gotta sign to have a background check done, then she doesn’t understand that. You know, why do you not trust me. And so we have to make sure we educate the church on why this is important.
Chris Turner: I just can’t think that anybody in any church, unless it was a predator, would be offended by a church taking a Sunday night, or Wednesday night, or just communicating clearly this is where we’re headed and this is why we’re doing it. It seems like that would be something that members in the church would feel a sense of confidence in their church for being proactive that way.
William Maxwell: Chris that has been probably the number one reason churches have told me, “We know we need to do background screening, but we know that our current people are gonna be offended by asking them to do this.” My response to that is, I would go to them and sit down and say look we know you love children. You have worked with children here for years, and years, and years, we know you love them, you care for them, and you will do anything to protect them. We want you to be the lead on standing up in front of the congregation and saying, “I’m gonna be background screened because I love these children.” And if you kind of approach it that way, you can take a lot of the other folks who maybe haven’t worked as long as that star nursery worker, and they have no recourse for that.
Chris Turner: As you say that, doing the leg work before the big rollout, and kind of really getting those folks on board, especially those that have been faithful and committed workers, goes a long way towards … Plus, there is a benefit to them in doing it. There is that protection that they have been screened, and they’re cleared. And if there is an accusation of some kind, well then you have the background screening in your back pocket for that person.
Chris Turner: Well there are some other things on this list, and we’ll just talk about one or two more. The training for volunteers and staff who work with minors, we’ve touched on that. Supervision of volunteers. The communication policy, this would approve parents approving of any electronic communication between volunteers and staff. And so that’s also falls into that, keeping that line of communication open, but talk about the importance, one of you, talk about the importance of engaging parents in this conversation. It’s not just about the workers, what do churches need to do in relation to going beyond just getting the workers, and volunteers, and staff up to speed on this. What do they need to do with parents?
William Maxwell: I have a term I use called equalizing expectations. That you want parents to understand what they can expect from your church ministry. Whether that be preschoolers, children, or youth, obviously it becomes a little more complicated with youth. Some parents want churches to raise their youth on their behalf. So part of equalizing expectations is coming to a more realistic expectation of that. But if you look at a lot of the cases of the abuse, especially of teenagers, it begins with text messaging, and private conversations that the predator is having with these teenagers. So having the parents understanding that, yes I’ll give my permission for this person to communicate electronically. That puts them on notice though that they probably need to, every once in a while, check their kids text messages, or phone messages, just to make sure there’s no inappropriate communications going on.
William Maxwell: Unfortunately text messaging, and the like, allows for that isolation to occur that is why we have the two adult rule. You can’t enforce that with a text messaging system. And I think staff need to learn how to appropriately communicate with their teenagers. Text messaging is great to say, “Okay we’re having pizza at six o’clock tonight, everybody come.” But it’s when it gets into the more personal and intimate conversations that the red flags start to go up.
Chris Turner: Yeah. Vicki have you got anything to add to that aspect?
Vicki Hulsey: Well one thing I really encourage leaders of kids, and some people say well kids would never have cell phones, well it’s amazing how many children do have cell phones, and have access to, whether it be E-mail or texting, those kinds of things. So I really strongly encourage leaders that if there is any communication like that, that the parent is always included. If a child has E-mail, a preteen has E-mail, if you E-mail them the parent is copied on the E-mail. I just think that gives you that extra keeping the parent in the loop. And that also alerts the child that that’s happening.
Chris Turner: It really sounds like this, the whole idea that people that deal with children or minors need to recognize that the onus of responsibility is on them to be so above board, and so far from the line. The whole idea of the appearance of evil type thing. They may be completely innocent and there be nothing there, but that they need to be self aware of what it might look like to someone else. I think if people were a little bit more aware of what it looks like that they’re doing, then they would have that margin between where the line is and really where they’re dealing with minors.
Chris Turner: So we’ve talked a lot about this. We’ve got some resources that are on the Baptist and Reflector site. Obviously Vicki you’ve said that your phone kind of blows up during this time when attention’s brought to a situation like this. What can a church do in relation to having you help them? What do they need to do to say, “Hey we’d like for you to come out and help us out.”
Vicki Hulsey: Well many times they want to see something in writing, so this 12 things the church can do to protect minors is huge for them, because they want something in writing to be able to use in their church. Sometimes they want you to come to their church and will you meet with this team, or will you speak … I’ve even spoken to entire congregations on a Wednesday night, that kind of thing, about these issues. Associations sometimes have me come and do training. But where in a situation like now when the calls are very heavy, then sometimes it may be months out before I could do that, because the calendar gets full. So we really have to look at things like this that help as well, to give them things that we can do over the phone, and through the website and those kind of things, so that they don’t wait until we can get there.
Chris Turner: William you had mentioned the screenings and the agreement that the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board has with a company that will help with that. What does a church need to do if they don’t currently do that, but would like some help from the TBMB to pursue that avenue? How would they go about that?
William Maxwell: They can contact the office of human resources for the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board, Sheila Darden is our human resources manager. And she can provide that connection, it’s a very simple connection. And you basically can call ClearStar, and they will set you up with your own church account, it doesn’t come through us, we don’t see those background screenings. The connection is really just because we do so many of these for all of our volunteers, and employees, and summer employees, and summer missionaries, and all of those others that we do at such a volume, ClearStar gives the same volume discount to our churches, and we appreciate that. And there are a lot of good screening services out there, that’s just the one that we have found fits our needs best.
William Maxwell: The system works to where that you input whoever is being screened, you put that information and their E-mail into the system. The system sends that person an E-mail and they have to approve the screening, they put in all their on information. So it’s a fairly simple system to function. And then the church gets the report back, and then makes the decision.
Chris Turner: Well one thing we need to make sure that people understand is that these types of resources, to have Vicki, or Donna Blaydes, or another Bruce Edwards, or Jay Barbier, one of our ministry specialists to deal with minors to come out and help them out, or to even participate in the screening. Those resources don’t cost anything to a church because of the cooperative program. They’re giving through the cooperative program, enables the church to have a partner in ministry through us to be able to help them get from where they are to where they need to be with this issue, and several other issues.
Chris Turner: So really hope churches take advantage of that opportunity. There’s so much more that could be said on this topic, obviously with it being in the news. But honestly any time, when we look at the vast, vast, number of volunteers that … I mean literally thousands, that help with children every week and there is no incidents. We certainly don’t want to diminish the contribution that they make. We also know that even a single instance where a minor has been sexually abused, or really anyone has been abused in a church, is unacceptable. And that’s what we’re talking about here, is doing our due diligence to help each other be effective in making the church a place where people can come and hear the good news, and grow in the lord. So if anyone has any questions feel free to contact us here at the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board.
Chris Turner: William and Vicki thank you so much for contributing this. I know we could go on, but this is probably a good place for us to wrap it up.
Vicki Hulsey: Thank you.
William Maxwell: Thank you Chris.