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Best Practices for Churches and Parents to Prevent Online Abuse of Children

MinistrySafe is a comprehensive child abuse prevention training program recommended by the Diocese of the South. Created by legal professionals who are sexual abuse experts, MinistrySafe helps churches reduce the risk of sexual abuse of the children entrusted to them with its 5-part Safety System and training, designed specifically for churches and ministries.
With the sudden surge in electronic learning and online church services and meetings, MinistrySafe is educating parents and church staff on the best practices to protect children who can become vulnerable through electronic communication. Whether you’re using Zoom, Facebook, email, or some other online platform, knowing how to prevent the sexual abuse of children online has never been a greater priority than it is now.
Below we offer a summary from material published by MinistrySafe. Please read the entire document by clicking the link here.

Be Informed: Sexual abuse of children does not require physical interaction.
“By definition, child sexual abuse is any tricked, forced, manipulated or coerced sexual activity for the pleasure of the abuser,” says MinistrySafe. “Children and teens may be easily manipulated into sexual activity through online communication applications.”

Be Aware: Abusers use grooming practices which parents, educators, and church staff should be trained to identify.
“The grooming process – the process by which an offender selects and prepares a child for inappropriate sexual interaction – varies based upon the age and gender of the targeted child.”

This means an older child – middle schooler or teenaged – would be targeted through the apps and media they are already accustomed to using, while a younger child may be exposed to these through an older sibling. MinistrySafe offers free online Sexual Abuse Awareness Training: click here to receive this free of charge.

Examples of grooming behavior include one-on-one interaction with a child, giving special privileges, and allowing the child to break rules. These behaviors absolutely still persist through electronic communication – which also extend to grooming the ‘gatekeepers’ (parents or staff) to convince them that they are trustworthy, and gatekeepers need to be on guard to this behavior.

MinistrySafe emphasizes that while “normally adjusted” adults pick an electronic communication platform based on what it can offer, an abuser will “explore every aspect of the application or platform to understand how to create virtual ‘trusted time alone’” – so parents and church staff need to evaluate platforms on this criteria as well, identifying every way an abuser may exploit the system.

Best Practices for Electronic Communication

  • Always prohibit one-on-one communication in any media. All communication should be public and transparent, with no direct messaging allowed. Any video, audio, or written communication (text or email) should always include at least one parent, and for staff/educators at least two staff.
  • Multiple students and staff should be present. Set a policy of at least three students in every class, a parent continually present, or at least two teaching staff members.
  • Do not permit sending or requesting of images or video. Any requested images or video should be emailed to at least two staff and a parent.
  • No sharing of personal information. Conversations should be related to projects, educational subjects, or curriculum.
  • Social media: Only use designated ministry group pages to communicate, and staff profiles should be private to limit access to personal information.
  • Video conferencing apps: Such as Zoom, which is being heavily used by churches right now. Staff members and minors should have an appropriate background, attire, and demeanor. Record all video conferencing occurring with students and inform everyone of this policy. Recordings can be scanned later by a designated adult to ensure appropriate content and interaction – this practice protects staff and students. Online video conferencing links should be password protected and not publicly posted, to prevent hacking by third parties. Zoom hosts can also disable the ‘chat’ feature to prevent one-on-one communication.
  • Know who to tell. If a boundary is crossed by a minor or an adult, children and adults should know who to tell, and it should be reported to a supervisor immediately. If child abuse or neglect is suspected, follow reporting requirements in your state, which can be found by clicking here. MinistrySafe says “When in doubt, REPORT.”
  • Enforce consistent boundaries. “Electronic communication may feel ‘less real’ to students and adults. Maintain appropriate decorum in all conversations.”

Parents: Stay Engaged
It’s easy to let your child get into a rhythm with their electronic learning or social time, and assume that all is well. MinistrySafe implores parents to continue monitoring their child’s time online, to stay vigilant and not abandon monitoring their interactions online.

Church Staff: Continue Your Training
Many anticipate that this may not be the only time our society has to undergo social distancing during the pandemic, as a fall/winter wave of the virus may again institute stay-at-home orders. Church staff and educators can continue their abuse prevention training with MinistrySafe, which provides many levels of training for staff and those in managerial roles. Complete the program’s comprehensive sexual abuse awareness training, know how to screen for potential abusers, and prepare yourself to protect the children in your midst during what may be continued use of electronic communication in the future.

Rachel Moorman
Communications Associate