Tuesday, May 17, 2005

On Child Safety in our Congregations

I received a phone call a couple of weeks ago from a mom who was concerned because there was only one teacher in her daughter’s class.

She asked, “Isn’t it the policy that there have to be two adults in each class?”

“Sort-of,” I replied. “Our policy can be called the ‘two sets of eyes’ policy. The policy is that we must have two adults with any class that leaves the building, and we strongly desire two adults with each class inside our building. Since your daughter’s class meets in this building, it is challenging in terms of classroom management, but permissible, to have a single adult lead class in this building, because there is a window in the door, and I peek in regularly.” This policy is typical for religious institutions nationwide.

This was just one week after another parent expressed frustration that his child’s class had to meet at a table placed in the hallway of the R.E. area, because with only one teacher present they couldn’t travel to their classroom across the street. One responsible adult is generally plenty to run a class of 3 or 4 children, and the policy implementation seemed to this parent to be punitive rather than supportive. He's a great guy, an involved father of one of these 4 kids, and I personally trust him. But while my intuition may answer personal questions, it cannot ever answer institutional ones. Intuition will never answer the question, "How do you know our children are safe?" What am I going to say, "Because I think they are?"

Many of us have spent our lifetime using a kind of intuition about people in order to decide when we are and when we are not safe; when someone else is, or is not, a threat. We value our children and their safety, but it is a sad truth that we cannot tell who is and who is not safe, and our intuition has not always worked. Paraphrasing Audre Lorde, “Your intuition will not protect you.” Because of this, the UUA, local Safe Congregations and Safe Kids Task Forces and RE Committees have created policies to maximize safety and minimize risk to our children and youth.

UUs, believing in the inherent goodness and worth and dignity of humans, approach our relationships in our congregations with a wonderful unconditional positive regard. This, I believe, is part of what makes us such an incredible religious movement. It is this belief in goodness and trust of one another which while challenging, is core to our commitment to this faith journey we take together. It is this centrality of a community of worthwhile individuals which makes our congregations, and our religious education (writ large) a truly liberal religious vision of promise.

I am not always as articulate about this subject as I wish to be, for there is really no good way to say what sounds to some like,
“I trust everyone here,
....and now I am going to implement policies that seem to say otherwise.”

I want my congregation to be a sacred and safe space. I want our congregation to be a harbor in a wild chaos of unpredictability outside, and sometimes it seems to parents, and other congregants that by simply mentioning the possibility of some of that unpredictability entering our doors is like bringing it in.

It has been too often these past years that I am reminded of why we must struggle with this discomfort. Many of us have known victims of domestic violence or child abuse in our towns, cities, and congregations. Many of our families in our congregations are families of choice that include foster children and friends'-children and kin-children who had previously experienced interpersonal violence and abuse. Many in our congregation actively work professionally and as volunteers to end/heal violence on an international, national, and interpersonal level.

It is still only a few years ago that a man in the Brattleboro UU was shot by police in the sanctuary while brandishing a knife. Four months ago a beloved past Board President of a nice Lutheran Church in Kansas City was arrested for being a serial killer. This summer will be the 3 year anniversary of the kidnapping and murder of Samantha Runnion, a little girl I held and rocked when she was a baby. I vividly remember an August afternoon when I looked into the depth of her infant eyes and told her mom Erin that Samantha was an old soul, born to gift us all.
(Yesterday a jury sentenced Samantha’s kidnapper/rapist/murderer to death. More about that another time at crankycindy.)

Then an escaped murderer from Boston was re-captured in the office of the Third Unitarian Church in Chicago. Described variously as a poet, an anti-war, pro-labor activist; he had been somewhat active in their congregation. Third Unitarian’s DRE was Eliza Galaher, who is serving there while she’s in Seminary at Meadville-Lombard. She previously served as our Youth Director here at USNF, and just yesterday our congregation voted to put her forward for the Ministry.

These events and injuries happen not seven degrees of separation from us, but one or two. Our Safe Kids policies means that, g-d forbid, (I find myself knocking on wood and wishing I could cross myself or make a magic symbol in the air to ward off even the idea) should we have among our friends and trusted congregation someone whose choices might intentionally or unintentionally injure others, we will know that we minimized any opportunity for them to act in a manner that could negatively impact our children. Our Safe Kids policies mean that I don’t have to rely on my incredibly imperfect intuition to decide what grown-ups can take children away from the building alone and which can’t, it simply isn’t done.

We have a two fold challenge in our congregations. We need adults to understand the two-adult rule and cooperate in enforcing it, especially regarding leaving the building or taking children to a private area within it. This will lead the children to expect this as the supportive norm that allows them to experience their community as safe.

Our other challenge is not having enough adults to allow us to fully support our children. When we struggle to find adults to teach and join them in their exploration – to talk or do art or music or games, I believe our children notice. They notice when they are required to have class in the middle of the hallway, and while they are kept physically safe because of that, I wonder how this impacts them emotionally. I know that they notice when we don’t know who their teacher will be next week or next quarter, and I know some wonder why their class is so often lacking an adult presence, and gets a teacher at the last minute, or when the parents have to take turns each week to cover the class. This cannot be knowledge that makes them feel safe or part of a sacred community.

When we are able to provide two adults in each classroom, we keep them physically and emotionally safe and supported. This creates the sacred environment in which they can grow spiritually and be open to liberal religious ideas.

This isn't a rhetorical essay, or administrative navel gazing about the theory and practice of safe congregations work, it's a call to arms. When's the last time you played with music and crayons and little scissors? When's the last time you re-examined the Jesus stories in light of what historians now know, or explored the Rainbow Path of our Principles, or learned about our UU heroes and heroines?

Go. Now. Find the DRE of your congregation and say, "I want to contribute to creating the sacred space that is religious education and faith development. I want to teach, or sing with them, or listen carefully while they re-tell ancient stories, or fill whatever need you have. I want to offer myself up to help out. What can I do?"

Seriously. Go. Now.

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