Developing Robust Safeguarding policies

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In a recent article, I wrote in defence of safeguarding policies and officers. Here I want to put forward some suggestions for how to have good, robust policies in place. First of all, I believe it is important to start from a Biblical basis.  Elders have a responsibility to provide good spiritual food for the flock and to protect them from wolves.[1] Now, when we think about wolves getting in among the sheep, we often tend to think in terms of false teaching but wolves find different ways to cause damage and one is through harmful and destructive behaviours such as abuse. Churches as open, welcoming, merciful places can be particularly vulnerable to predators especially as we often also attract vulnerable people too.

This means that the elders are in fact responsible for safeguarding.  This is a responsibility we cannot relinquish. However, having overall responsibility for something does not prevent us from delegating operational duties to others.  In the same way, I believe that even when someone else preaches, I am still responsible as an elder for what is said.  It is important to choose carefully the right person for the role.  My recommendation is that they need to be someone who is:

  • Humble, gentle and approachable. This means that people will have confidence to come to them with an issue but it also protects against the fear that they will usurp legitimate spiritual authority.
  • Strong on policy and process.
  • Experienced and with a reputation for wisdom

In his article for EN, John Benton used a footballing analogy, so I would like to use another one here. Stuart McCall was not the flashiest of footballers, he was no Ronaldo or Paul Gascoigne. You would not expect him to take on 3 or 4 players dribbling forward. Rather, his reputation that took him to the top of the game was for brilliant one touch football. He could win the ball or receive a pass out of defence and with one touch redirect it finding another player and setting up  a dangerous attack. Having released the ball, he was quickly on the move to join the attack again. We need that type of person in church leadership and particularly in a safeguarding role.  Some people see themselves as gifted amateur detectives and so as soon as they hear a rumour or report, they want to investigate it themselves. There is a role for such skills but not here. When it comes to safeguarding, our responsibility is to collect the necessary facts and then pass them on to those in a position to act.

As well as the right people in place, we also need good policies and processes.  Those policies should include clear definitions of what a safeguarding incident is and the type of people that the policy is designed to protect. It should also include clear, straight forward processes.  How should incidents be reported, who to and how are they escalated. It should describe how any investigation will take place. However, most importantly, it should primarily be preventative and provide for training and for practices that will prevent safeguarding incidents from happening.

This means that regular reviews should be conducted.  Those should include risk assessments. These will identify that particular parts of your building, types of meeting and times of day will create additional risk.  For example, at a midweek club, you can control who is in the building so that only DBS’d adults are present with children. However, on Sundays, the risk increases as a range of people come into your building. Coffee time is perhaps the riskiest when children are no longer under Sunday School Teacher responsibility and often when parents are busy talking to others.  Have you identified how such a risk can be mitigated?

Finally, have good reporting systems in place. At Bearwood Chapel, we followed the practice of school governor meetings by ensuring that issues and incidents were logged with the safeguarding officer and then reported at monthly leaders’ meeting. This meant we simply reported numbers of incidents but did not go into detail or name names.

Outside organisations such as Thirtyone Eight are extremely helpful both in terms of providing advice when developing your policies and in response to specific incidents. Make full use of them.

Good safeguarding policies are designed both to protect vulnerable members from abuse and volunteers from false accusation. We take safeguarding seriously because we love the flock we have been given responsibility for and because we want to glorify God in all we do.

[1] Acts 20:28-30

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