Danger in the day care

Do you know what the law says you should do if you suspect child abuse or molestation? The author of this article didn't, and it led to some time spent on the wrong side of the bars at the local jail His story and suggestions can help you avoid the same problem.

Dan Harman, a pastor, writes from Highland, California.

Today's headlines frequently highlight child molesting in day-care centers. Church-sponsored day-care centers and schools aren't immune from the problem either.

Sponsoring such facilities exposes the church and the pastor to many dangers. I know; I went to jail because of a well-intentioned but wrong assumption.

No, I wasn't accused of molesting. But let me start from the beginning.

The phone in my study rang. It was a church official telling me, the senior pastor, that the janitor saw a young playground supervisor with his hand down the front of a second-grader's pants. "Looks like he was sexually handling the boy, pastor," the church leader told me.

I called the school principal, and together we agreed to try to frighten the employee--a student in a local Christian college--and urge him to get counseling. We also agreed to fire him immediately. The information was so sketchy and unprovable that we never thought of calling in the police. A good scare and being rid of him seemed the solution.

Hindsight is wonderful. Now we know what the law says and what we were obligated to do. But at that time the papers and television had not said much about the subject. We were concerned, of course, for the welfare of the students and their families; but we were also aware of the young man's reputation and felt we could be part of healing a problem.

So much for good intentions. Not long afterward a police detective visited me; he informed me that he believed a suspected molestation had taken place and wanted to know why I hadn't reported it. I told him of my ignorance of the law, and he said, "In California you have seventy-two hours to report a suspected molestation, or you are in violation of the law."

My education was beginning.

In short order I was arrested, hand cuffed, fingerprinted, and jailed. I spent three hours in the "drunk tank" while my wife rounded up the bail needed. In my more than thirty years of Christian ministry my only trips to jail had been visits to help inmates spiritually. This was a new experience--one I could have done without.

After many months of church outrage at my treatment, dozens of letters from church leaders all over the country, and the work of a really knowledgeable lawyer, I was informed that the district attorney had dropped the charges.

The day-care center and school survived. I survived. But wagging tongues, misunderstandings, doubts, and natural indignation by parents of children placed in our care have hurt the church.

Let me share a few things I learned. Maybe you and your day-care center or school can profit.

Get insurance for such facilities. We had liability insurance just in case something like this should happen. We haven't had to use it, but if we had been sued, insurance was the only thing that would have saved the congregation.

Your congregation should have a working relationship with a good lawyer. Let him help you select a good insurance company.

Check out the legal implications of having a day-care center, school, or both. Most states aren't as tough as California, but better safe than sorry. Check your responsibility. Remember, I was arrested not for hiding a molester, but for not reporting a suspected molestation.

Make sure your principal or day-care director is current on laws and procedures in handling suspected molestations. It isn't enough that he is an educator, a Christian, a person who cares and who gets along well with people. He had better know the law in all matters that touch the ongoing work of the facility.

Maintain good communications among your staff. People who get along well together naturally look out for one another. We found out later that two members of the staff thought they had seen this same young man handling young boys in a too-familiar way, but both had hesitated to speak of it because of inhibitions. Afterward, of course, all of them agreed that in the future they would be more open. Indeed, just a few weeks after this happened, one of the children came to school with clear evidence of mistreatment at home. On reporting it, we were sadly relieved to find we had done the right thing.

Inform parents, children, and staff on how to handle such improper advances. A volunteer program may suffice, but it should be repeated every year. Several are being used around the country; your area Christian schools' organization or even your local board of education can suggest those that are available. Look them over; your parent-support group (if you have one parallel to the public schools' PTA) may wish to select and sponsor the course.

Finally, build a solid base of support within the congregation for the day-care center or school. As the months rolled on, I thanked God many times for the solid support that the school and I received as tensions soared and pressure mounted. God used the unity of the church to give me personal strength and to back the school staff. Build prayerfully, thought fully, and lovingly. People respond when they have confidence in the people and program.

One final word: Christian schools and day-care centers are a great idea. If one is "right" for you and your church, go to it. If God is behind it, nothing that opposes it will triumph. Please don't make decisions about whether to operate a day-care center or school on the basis of possible problems. The church is here to touch people for Christ, and often a teaching and ministering institution like a day-care center or school is just the thing to advance His work.

Move ahead, but "be . . . wise as serpents, and harmless as doves."

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Dan Harman, a pastor, writes from Highland, California.

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