Q&A: Supervision of minors during church and class time

What is a church’s responsibility for supervising minors during Sunday school and worship services?

If parents allow their kids to be on their own at church, and they leave Sunday school or wander the building before, during, or after church services, what is the church’s liability? What is the responsibility of class teachers to monitor students who leave the room (on the pretext of a bathroom break) and don’t return?
To start, the field of legal liability is quite complex. For the extent to which your church stands legally liable on any issue, consult your church’s attorney. With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s more directly address your question, and I’ll use experience as our guide.
I suggest you approach this issue by first considering who’s primarily responsible for a child’s care at any given moment. If a child’s parents, grandparents, or guardian has not given you the responsibility for care, then the child remains under their watch. Assuming your church uses a formal registration process for children entering your ministry, then the transfer of responsibility stands easy to see. When the child is in your care, you have all the responsibility until the child formally leaves your care. That statement applies to kids of all ages. Clarity about whose care a child remains under is the key element.
As for teenagers, again be clear with parents and the students about whose supervision the youth must abide by. If a teen leaves a room and wanders the church, and the ministry and the parents believe the teen is under the care of the ministry, then all involved expect you to supervise the teen. If, though, a teen refuses to abide by the thoughtful supervision your ministry uses, then the parents must know and give their permission for the child to leave—understanding that the teen is not under the supervision of the ministry anymore. No, there’s no suggestion here that teens must remain locked in rooms. But consider the behavior guidelines teens adhere to Monday through Friday at school. To leave a ministry and not come back is, after all, extremely disrespectful too—and should be addressed.
Looping all the way back to the original question about children while under the parent’s care, consider informing parents about what’s expected of them while at church. Too often, parents believe churches are filled with 100 percent safe people and no harm could ever come to a child, so let ’em run, they mistakenly think. Remind parents that their children are their responsibility, and to avoid accidents and other mishaps, the child should remain in the sight of the parent while at church. After all, kids allowed to run will eventually run into something or out a door. This is a reasonable request by any standard. I don’t suggest scaring parents by telling them that a chance exists for predators to be in your midst. At the same time, though, it’s a good idea to establish expectations and communicate them consistently.
For an excellent overview on supervision practices, see Reducing the Risk, a DVD training curriculum for keeping churches safe from child sexual abuse.

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