Commentary: How to keep our children safe at church

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Today’s parents are becoming more and more concerned about the safety of their infants and young children during Sunday worship services and other church events that provide care. Pastors and church leaders have a tremendous responsibility to keep safe those precious little ones whose parents entrust to church childcare programs.

Here are some practical suggestions you can incorporate to keep your church children safe:

Church safety and security

After the recent rash of church and school shootings, some pastors are hiring police and/or security guards to monitor outside and inside children’s areas. Pastors can also provide more safety outside the building with:

  • Additional and well-maintained lighting in parking lots.
  • Safe playgrounds for children that are securely fenced, monitored at all times, and a safe distance away from woods, public areas and roadways.
  • Playground equipment that is age-appropriate, routinely cleaned and maintained for safety.
  • Fire safety and emergency evacuation procedures written down, understood and practiced by children’s workers.
  • Extra outside doors locked during church hours and a guard posted at entrances/exits that remain open to congregants.

A church/parent alert system

In case of an accident, excessive crying, illness, choking, vomiting, fever, etc., children’s workers must be able to reach parents immediately. Some churches use:

Choosing safe classroom/nursery space within church

It matters where the children’s area is located within the church. Best safety locations include:

  • Classrooms with outside windows that lock to prevent falling and unauthorized access. Safety glass to prevent breakage and injury.
  • No entrance/exit doors that open out to the grounds, parking lots or streets. Only inside entrance/exit doors in classrooms.
  • A viewing window in classroom doors so that pastors, staff and parents can see inside at all times.
  • Fire department-approved smoke alarms within or near children’s areas.

Creating and practicing safety within children’s classrooms

Children’s areas must be clean, childproofed and equipped with:

  • Safety plugs in electrical outlets and no electrical cords within a child’s reach.
  • Cleared surface spaces to prevent items falling on children.
  • Childproof locking devices attached to cabinets and drawers to prevent accidental openings.
  • A first-aid kit for minor injuries; digital thermometer to check for fever; sanitary wipes (for toys, equipment, books); hand sanitizer (for workers); a diaper disposal receptacle.
  • No toxic cleaning chemicals or hazardous materials stored in lower cabinets.
  • No trash cans or plants within reach of children.
  • Age-appropriate children’s equipment in good condition that is regularly cleaned and maintained, including:
    • Baby beds/cribs that are regularly wiped down, cleaned and use only fitted sheets. Cribs with slats need bumper guards to prevent arm/leg injuries. Cribs must be kept free of blankets, toys and books. (Each crib needs only a fitted sheet on its mattress. Babies should always be placed in cribs on their backs, not stomachs.)
    • All older cribs and painted equipment should be checked for lead paint.
    • Swings, jumpers and bouncers and other equipment should be checked regularly for soundness and cleanness. Each should contain secure safety straps to prevent children from falling.
  • Age-appropriate children’s toys that pose no safety risks from sharp edges, broken parts and small pieces that can be swallowed. Toys should be cleaned before, several times during and after classroom hours to prevent the spread of germs.

Choosing and equipping qualified children’s workers

Whether pastors hire children’s workers or enlist volunteers from the congregation, all adults who work with church children must:

  • Be interviewed by the pastor or a church leader and approved/trained to work responsibly with infants/young children.
  • Undergo a criminal background check.
  • Have been a member of the church for at least six months.
  • Not work alone, but with at least one additional, church-approved worker in the classroom. (The two workers should not be married or related to each other.)
  • Be healthy, have no contagious diseases and be up-to-date on vaccinations.
  • Understand church safety policies, have access to a phone in case of an emergency, be trained in CPR and understand what to do in situations such as fire drills, evacuation procedures, potentially violent situations, etc.
  • Understand and love children, encourage and teach them, keep them safe and clean.
  • Refrain from bringing personal food items or drinks into classrooms. Personal items, such as purses, should be locked away from the children. (Purses can contain hazards such as breath mints, medications, car keys, etc. that can choke and/or harm children.)
  • (To prevent choking and scratching) Refrain from wearing jewelry, scarves, high-heeled shoes (flat, soft-soled shoes are safer), hair ornaments, hairpins, perfume or scented hand lotions (in case of allergies), etc. Make sure shirt/blouse/coat buttons are securely fastened. Keep fingernails trimmed/smooth.
  • Get to know each child by name and get to know and get along with parents and family members.
  • Keep an active log on each child, telling parents:
    • How much formula/liquid and food child has consumed;
    • The number and consistency of child’s bowel movements;
    • The amount of time child has napped/slept;
    • Any problems child has had with other children (such as biting, aggression, hitting, bullying, etc.)
  • Know who will be picking up children after services. Each worker should have church-approved/parent-signed written instructions determining the individuals who are allowed to take children from classrooms.
  • Report any inappropriate parental behavior to workers or children in classrooms and any suspected parental child abuse (visible bruises, cuts, etc.) (Alabama law requires anyone who comes in regular contact with children to report incidents or suspected/obvious child abuse/neglect.)

Safe Teacher-Child Ratios

Birth to two-year-old children should be grouped according to their physical development, not age. To keep infants/young children safe:

  • Babies need one teacher for every two enrolled.
  • One and two-year-olds need one teacher for every three enrolled.
  • Three and four-year-olds need one teacher for every four enrolled.
  • Five-year-olds (kindergarten age) need one teacher for every five enrolled.

Children and food

Children can choke on food, and they can die from food-related allergies. Recently, at New Orleans Theological Seminary’s childcare center, a two-year-old choked to death while eating lunch. Children’s workers must:

  • Allow children to eat only the food sent with them by their parents and disallow children sharing each other’s snacks.
  • Have on file an up-to-date list of each child’s food-related allergies and emergency information on treatment in case the child accidentally consumes the food.
  • Know CPR if a child becomes choked and understand church policies concerning child emergencies.

Family member responsibilities

Parents and approved family members can help church workers keep children safe by providing valuable information and observing church rules. For instance, parents can:

  • Fill out and sign a church-approved information form that includes:
    • Names of children; parents’ phone numbers; emergency phone numbers, name and phone number of child’s pediatrician, etc.
    • A list of approved family members/friends authorized by parents to pick up children from classrooms.
    • A list of the child’s food allergies.
    • Any special needs the child might have physically, emotionally, or mentally.
  • Keep children’s vaccinations up-to-date. Refrain from bringing sick children to church.
  • Provide any supplies their child will need: diapers, skin ointment for diaper rash, sanitary wipes for diaper changes, bottles of formula, healthy snacks and drinks, a change of clothes, etc. Parents should not bring children’s personal toys, blankets, etc. into classrooms. (Food/formula/snacks should be tightly sealed and labeled clearly with child’s name.)
  • Keep children’s fingernails trimmed.
  • Be appreciative, respectful and kind to children’s workers. (Parents should refrain from any type of conflict, engaging busy workers in long conversations, and/or interfering in classroom policies).
  • Report to pastor or church leader any problems they see or experience with children’s workers.

When pastors and churches carefully plan and prepare safe children’s areas and classrooms, choose and train competent children’s workers and work to make church a safe place for children, parents will worry less about their children as they attend worship services and events in another part of the church.

Denise George is author of 31 books, including What Pastors Wish Church Members Knew (Zondervan). She is married to Timothy George, founding Dean of Beeson Divinity School, Samford University.

This article was originally published in The Alabama Baptist on February 22, 2018.

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