By Kevin Johnson
As members of The United Methodist Church, we are called by God to make our ministries safe and to protect children, youth, and vulnerable adults from abuse and exploitation. God has also called us to create communities of faith where children, youth, and vulnerable adults can be safe and grow strong.
Jesus taught, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me” (Mark 9:37 NRSV) and “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones…it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:6 NRSV).
Every fifteen seconds, a child is abused or neglected. Often, abuse occurs in places where children and youth should feel safe – homes, schools, camps, and churches. In over three quarters of reported cases, the victims were related to or acquainted with the abusers. Safe Sanctuaries outlines policies and procedures that can (1) prevent such abuse from happening in our churches; (2) be a place where children can feel safe in disclosing abuse; and (3) protect the loyal volunteers and employees who minister to our children, youth, and vulnerable adults.
Every fifteen seconds, a child is abused or neglected. Often, abuse occurs in places where children and youth should feel safe – homes, schools, camps, and churches.
Perhaps one of the most misunderstood standards in the policy is the “two-adult rule.” This standard requires that at any activity, there will be at least two unrelated adults present. The standard defines two unrelated adults as two individuals eighteen years of age or older who are not residing in the same household and who are not related by marriage or other familial ties. This “goes against” our memory of that elderly husband and wife who taught first grade Sunday school together for more than thirty years. The two related people may continue to serve together, but a third person must also be present. The alternative, and where the standard can become confusing, is the inclusion of an adult “roamer” who moves in and out of rooms. This “roamer” periodically and regularly enters classrooms staffed by only one Safe Sanctuary-qualified adult.
It is easy to implement the “roamer” to cover certain situations in support of the Safe Sanctuaries policy. The “roamer” should be used as a last resort. Often, a leader may not have enough volunteers and therefore implements the “roamer.” There are several “rules to the roamer” that you should consider before you institute this policy to ensure safety to all involved in the church activity.
The 'Roamer' Rules
1. Count your steps
Physical distance matters. Many times, the roamer position is used during a large churchwide event where many volunteers are needed. Consider vacation Bible school as one such example. In this situation, there are many groupings of children with leaders spread across a large amount of space. When using a roamer, make sure that the area to be monitored is an easy walk for one person. One person cannot cover a vast amount of space on his/her own.
Consider line-of-sight as well as the roamer’s ability to hear. Both senses are important for a roamer to use if that person is considered to be the second or third adult. The roamer’s responsibilities should also include common rooms and hallways as well as individual classrooms (if those classroom doors remain open).
2. Be sporadically consistent
Abusers are not easily recognized. In fact, they may look like the ideal volunteers. Abusers are people who have greater power in relation to the child, and they are aware of how to implement that power to harm the child. Abusers are observant of the behavioral patterns and tendencies of those around them. They will notice the exact time that a roamer checks on the room. If that time is consistently the same, the abusers will identify unsupervised opportunities and take advantage of the roamer’s consistent timetable. When a roamer is used, make sure that all volunteers are aware that the roamer could and will randomly appear and observe the classroom and/or group of children. The roamer should select random times during an activity to keep observations sporadic but consistent. The roamer should feel free to revisit the same location multiple times to aid this consistent, sporadic behavior.
3. I can see clearly
A window in every door removes the opportunity for secrecy and isolation, which are conditions every child abuser seeks. Closed doors and covered windows are huge concerns for compliance with Safe Sanctuary policies. Many children’s spaces in the church are shared with other groups serving children, such as preschool or day care. In those instances, windows may be covered with artwork. Doors should always remain ajar, and windows should be uncovered to allow the roamer and parents to have the opportunity to see the children. A good suggestion is to replace a door with a half Dutch door and keep the top half of the door open. This rule should also apply to exterior windows. Keep shades and blinds open. If the doors need to be closed because of the noise level or multiple groupings in a centralized location and there is no Dutch door in place, make sure that children can be seen through a window.
4. Pay attention and log details
The roamer needs to pay attention to small details during the observation of the physical spaces being used. He or she should notice any small changes in demeanor of either a child or the leader. The roamer should pay attention to changed behaviors when he/she enters and exits the situation. Are they consistently in line with how people in the room should be expected to behave? Does anyone seem uneasy or uncomfortable upon the roamer’s entrance into the room? Do personalities seem to change when the roamer arrives? When a roamer is used, the behaviors of all involved in the classroom or grouping should remain consistent. A good way to denote that the classrooms were observed is to document the time in a time-tracker log. Create a log for the roamer to document the time he/she visited the classroom and to note if all behaviors seemed consistent. The adage, “if it isn’t documented, it didn’t happen” allows the roamer to denote visible concerns.
5. It’s still about relationships
When using a roamer, remember that this person’s role is to ensure safety for the faith community and to nurture relationships with the children and volunteer leaders. It is recommended that the roamer stop and greet the children, thus creating an atmosphere of trust where the children will become excited to greet the roamer. Give the roamer a special shirt, colorful vest, or hat to make him/her stand out and be identified as someone to ask questions about the ministry. Take the time to build relationships. These moments also empower the volunteers to continue to lead as well. The roamer’s role is not to create anxiety by evaluating the leader’s skills; it is to be supportive. A relationship of trust and security will make a long-lasting imprint on the life of the child. The roamer is essential in the monitoring and safety of programming, but the roamer also can become the face of a ministry, a trusted and familiar person to approach with questions about the ministry. This also establishes a great first impression to families.
The Social Principles of the United Methodist Church state that “…children must be protected from economic, physical, and sexual exploitation and abuse.” Safe Sanctuaries policies state, “If any stranger or new member can have immediate access to our children, we have failed to provide the safe sanctuary we promised our children at their baptism” (Safe Sanctuaries, 14). At each child’s baptism, we affirm our responsibility to the child’s safety by our congregational response, pledging: “With God’s help, we will so order our lives after the example of Christ, that this child, surrounded by steadfast love, may be established in the faith, and confirmed and strengthened in the way that leads to life eternal.” (From The Book of Worship, “Baptismal Covenant, Congregational Pledge II”).
Remembering these suggestions when using a roamer to secure the two-adult rule portion of the Safe Sanctuary policy will ensure the safety of all God’s children, uphold the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church, and affirm the promise of the baptismal covenant with our pledge of safety. Review these rules of the roamer when providing Safe Sanctuary training in the context in which you serve.
Joy Thornburg Melton. Safe Sanctuaries: Reducing the Risk of Abuse in the Church for Children and Youth (Discipleship Resources, 2008).
Social Principles, https://www.umc.org/en/content/social-principles-the-social-community
Rev. Kevin Johnson is the Director, Children’s Ministries for Congregational Vitality & Intentional Discipleship at Discipleship Ministries. Kevin’s hero Fred Rogers suggests that we, “listen to the children, learn about them, learn from them. Think of the children first.” This quote defines Rev. Kev’s approach to ministry. Kevin, an ordained elder of the Kentucky Annual Conference, has over fifteen years of ministry experience in which he has thought of the children first. Prior to ministry, Kevin worked with children in the hospital setting and in group homes for emotionally and physically abused children.
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