Threshing Session on Youth Safety, 3/2006

Child Safety Threshing Session/Ad Hoc Committee Formed

The threshing session was held in good order on March 26, 2006. Notes from the session will be sent out to the Meeting email list for review. Friends attending the session generally supported the idea of having a child safety policy. An ad hoc committee was appointed to write a draft of the Meeting’s policy on child safety taking into account the thoughts shared at the threshing session, as well as all other information that has been gathered by the meeting on this topic. Other Friends are invited to participate on the committee. This will be announced in the Silent Announcements.  (from 4/2/2006 minutes)

Threshing Session on Child Safety, 3/26/2006

Child safety is a topic that has been difficult for us to talk about as a meeting. The threshing session is an opportunity for us to listen deeply to each other and understand each other’s concerns and perspectives. The purpose of the threshing session is not to make any decisions but to speak and listen from the heart. This will help build a foundation of mutual understanding for subsequent discussions about what to do.

When the issue was discussed at the monthly business meeting, the sense was that it would be important to involve as many people in the discussion as possible. We need to find a way forward on this issue that helps to sustain the love and unity of our community and to avoid alienating anyone. If you are unable to attend the threshing session, we encourage you to consider the queries and offer your responses either in writing or to a member of the Ministry and Care Committee.

In worship, please consider the following queries and how you feel led to respond to them.

1. Overview: What do I need to help assure me that the children of our meeting are safe?

2. Concern: What risks am I most concerned about that our children face in our meeting?

3. Responses: What do I feel the meeting needs to do to address these risks? What do I need to do? As a parent, how can I ensure the safety of my child in meeting? What responses to these risks would make me feel uneasy?

4. Process: How should our meeting develop policies and practices for child safety? What are the next steps for the meeting?

5. Effects: How do I feel about the Meeting addressing this issue? How might it affect my experience of our spiritual community? How might it affect the trust I feel in our community? What makes this topic difficult for me to talk about?

Advices on Threshing Sessions

a. Begin with centering silence and reach deeply into the sacred center.

b. Listen carefully and deeply to what is spoken, not distracted by our own thoughts.

c. To promote deep listening and maintain a spirit of worship, leave ample silence between messages. To this end, wait to be recognized before speaking.

d. Wait until all have spoken once before sharing a second time.

e. Do not feel you have to respond to all the queries. Rather, see how they speak to you and consider what you feel led to share. Pick just a few key points to focus on. Be mindful not to take more than your share of our time.

As with other Quaker worship,

f. Speaking from personal experience tends to contribute the most to deepening the worship. Concentrate on feelings and experiences rather than on thoughts or theories. Use “I statements.”

g. To help maintain a safe space for all to speak openly and to avoid devolving into debate or argument, do not respond directly to what others have shared.

h. Use as few words as possible but as many as are necessary.

Notes on the Threshing Session:

The meeting opened at 12:15 with nine Friends present. Ken Stockbridge, as clerk of the Threshing Session, introduced the topic. He noted that Ministry and Care has been laboring with this topic for over two years. A Statement of Trust was brought before Meeting for Business, and Friends at that time felt that more was needed to engage the question, to take it to heart, and to ask whether there is something more that we need.

This leads us to the present queries: what do we need to do about this? It was mentioned that we are not required to have a policy by the insurance companies, but that does not prohibit us from choosing to have a policy. We are today asking the question, is it rightly ordered for us?

Ken then introduced the principles of a threshing session and reviewed the advices pertaining to these particular meetings for worship. The meeting went into the silence out of which Ken read the Queries on Child Safety. Friends were invited to ask for recognition and to speak out of the silence as they are led.

One Friend noted that the Patapsco Friends Meeting environment was already pretty safe, that the kids know the people here and that they feel safe. A major concern was not when the children were in the meeting house, but when they were not: outside in the barn, building forts, playing in the potential construction sites, getting into trouble. This Friend felt that more supervision outside was needed.

With regard to Frederick Meeting’s policy the requirement to have at least two adults for each classroom was probably unworkable: it was hard enough getting just one! The involvement of adults in children activities is a more general problem, a larger question: how we as adults do or do not relate to the kids? We need to constantly build bridges, to nurture an environment where adults want to be present for the kids, and the kids want an adult presence.

Another Friend affirmed that a key component to our approach must focus on kids having a strong relationship with adults in the meeting. The push for kids NOT to tell about an encounter is strong in our culture, and it is this tendency which we must reverse.

This Friend was opposed to a policy which required two adults to be present with the children. Prevention can never be guaranteed, and we can tie ourselves into knots over this issue. Perhaps what is needed is an annual session where kids talk about safety. Children need to feel free to approach adults, to establish a close relationship with adults. Children need to understand that “It’s OK to tell adults…” It is impossible to guard against every occasion of abuse.

We need to strengthen communication, understanding and connection in the meeting.

A third Friend noted that these issues address our fears and raise issue about trust. Consequently they are delicate issues, difficult to talk about. Children are facing risks on a daily basis, risks from their environment, risks from their peers, risks from the adults around them. Perhaps we need to focus on the potential risk, the potential sexual abuse by people who are not known to the meeting. We need processes and safeguards sufficient to alert ourselves to concerns which need to be raised.

This Friend became involved in First Day School when she was initially concerned about the safety of her child. If there were specific concerns which parents had about a Religious Education teacher, this Friend felt confident that those issues would be discussed.

There are significant differences between our meeting and Frederick Meeting where a known sexual offender wanted to be part of meeting activities. It was not clear to this Friend whether all meetings need to take steps just because another meeting had identified difficulties.

Having confidence in our RE teachers and child care providers is not the sole area of risk. Other attenders and other adults also pose risk.

Another Friend drew some parallels to the work environment where there are requirements to have policies and procedures. This Friend felt that it was wise to have policies in place: if something should happen we need a way to handle the issues. It is essential to have a policy which addresses what would you do if it happens. We would like to say that “we had a policy in place and we followed that.”

Children are inundated with these issues in schools, and this Friend expressed some concern that we are instilling fear in our children. We need to inform them and empower them without making them afraid of adults. We need to reinforce communication in the meeting – to ensure that kids can turn to adults or older teenagers.

To not have a policy could itself be a mistake, putting the meeting at risk.

Another Friend felt that we should start at the beginning and asked whether we need a policy at all? We got a statement on Trust with which we were comfortable, but we needed something more. What is that ‘something more’?

Early on we, as a meeting, asked whether we need child care at all. We decided that yes, we did, but how was that to be provided? Entirely with volunteers or with some paid staff as is done in other meetings?

This Friend felt that there exists no way to assure with absolute certainty that no bad things will happen. Bad things do happen no matter what steps you take. Defenses can be breached.

What can we do? How many people have to be in a room or on a trip? A requirement for two or more adults to be present makes some angry regardless of what the insurance company demands. We currently have a hard time getting only one person per classroom.

This Friend asks ‘What are my obligations to the children, and to the parents of children in the meeting?’ While parents of children should be able and encouraged to attend meeting for worship, this requires non-parents to help. This Friend has not been led to help in that way.

On the issue of a new unknown attender at meeting, this Friend referred to Frederick Meeting’s guidelines that suggest that no one will be a child care provider until they have been an attender at meeting for a certain number of months. Care providers need some seasoning. We have a nominating process which takes this somewhat into account: nominations are laid over for a month to enable the rest of meeting to bring their concerns forward. Perhaps this is a model for First Day School teachers and child care providers.

It was pointed out that Frederick Meeting’s guidelines require that parents provide permission for interaction between adults and their children. If a parent feels uncomfortable with an adult -or- child being in contact with their child they need to say so. We need to encourage parents to give voice to their concerns, and we need to be listening to these concerns.

Another Friend, a concerned adult and a parent, noted that while a policy is good, a person bent on doing evil can circumvent any policy. As a Big Brother, this Friend made sure that any contact with his charge was in a public place. As a parent there is a danger of being overly concerned.

This Friend summarized his thoughts that a policy is good, but parents must be vigilant.

Still another Friend noted that these issues were very difficult to deal with, and remarked that sexual abuse scars run deep and last for a very long time. Many instances of sexual abuse do not involve strangers but are between people who are known to each other and trusted. Whether or not someone is new to meeting is not this Friend’s concern.

Having a policy and procedure in place is enormously helpful. Children are often afraid of coming forward, afraid of not being believed, afraid that they are partially responsible. The meeting needs to assure the children that if they come forward with a story (1) that they will be believed and (2) that they are not responsible.

This Friend also felt that fear can be a good thing. Fear is sometimes a warning, and children need to be taught to listen to their fears.

A policy of this nature is much more difficult to establish once you have a problem. Asking children to trust all adults is much too vague. Perhaps there should be a small number of designated adults. Perhaps the children should be involved in choosing those adults.

Another Friend noted that there seemed to be two separate issues: first prevention, second response. To focus only on prevention emphasizes a lack of trust. Examples from other meetings are harsh reminders of how little confidence some Friends have for their care givers. Explicit attention to the response of the meeting if, God forbid, some incident should occur can state the meeting’s intention to meet the challenge.

Certainly neither aspect of child safety is by itself sufficient, but a focus on a policy of response to abuse might be easier to address, and is a necessary component of a full policy on child safety.

A Friend wondered if even raising the question of child safety calls into doubt the trust which we now feel as a meeting. Perhaps this high level of trust is itself a disincentive to discussion. But just because we have found ourselves in a trusting community doesn’t mean that it will always be that way. To illustrate this point this Friend noted that this meeting, while unaware, already has had a sexual abuser in attendance who has since moved away.

If new people, new attenders, are seen as a potential problem, how about the new attender who has children! They don’t know us and yet they appear to trust us with their children. This Friend would feel safer if it were known that the meeting had wrestled with the problem of child safety.

Concerns about child safety often focus on the horrific risks; but what about other risks which children face: emotional abuse, spanking children, yelling at children. Inadequate supervision is seen as a major category of risk. It is not only the risks that others present to child safety, but the risks that children take on their own.

This Friend saw a major risk in not having appropriate developmental activities for the children, at least in the context of daily childcare. In the case of a Quaker meeting, he wondered whether the same idea might apply, perhaps regarding appropriate spiritual development activities. Perhaps we should broaden our concept of risks which children face beyond the horrific ones.

With regard to responses this Friend felt that the meeting should inculcate a culture that motivates individuals to take supervisory action both voluntarily and spontaneously. Perhaps we could have annual discussions with the children both the hear their concerns and to let them know what recourse they have.

The Yearly Meeting has a few Friends designated as ‘holders’, Friends who’s only function is to hold the Yearly Meeting in the light. Perhaps we could have ‘holders’ in the classrooms with the children. That extra adult in the classroom may lead to an enhanced spiritual experience for the children being held in the light.

As a Friendly Adult Presence this Friend was more comfortable volunteering knowing that there were policies in place. The children were aware of a community norm. The kids reviewed their expectations, were involved in self-policing, understood their boundaries, and understood the need for an adult presence.

While acknowledging that children do need to be believed, this friend also reminded us that false accusations can and do sometimes happen. So a clear and fair procedure on how accusations are handled can be a comfort to the youth worker as well as the child and the parents.

The meeting on child safety closed at 2pm.

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