Online Ministries and Child Abuse in the Age of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has led governmental leaders across the country to institute “stay-at-home” orders of varying degrees, and almost all greatly restrict in-person interactions outside our homes. By extension, our children are going to school online and many of us who are blessed to have work that can be done remotely are doing so from home.

This isolation is separating many from the much-needed personal relationships and connections they get from school, work, social events and their houses of worship.

Human beings are social beings who need personal connection.

At this time of COVID-19, we’re all being forced to be creative in how we connect with others. One result is more churches and schools are using online social meeting options, whether they be Facebook groups, Zoom meetings, or Google Hangouts to stay connected with their members, including children.

The longer the “stay-at-home” orders persist, the more common these online social gatherings will become. Plus, as so many of the country’s children continue to learn online, possibly through the end of the 2019-2020 school year or beyond into the 2020-2021 school year, more children and their families will find themselves comfortable with and proficient in the use of online technology that they might not have otherwise used.

This will likely result in the increased use of online social sites and apps AFTER the COVID-19 public health restrictions have been removed and our nation returns to a new normal.

And this is where the nature of child protection in your ministries may need to be fine-tuned. While many of our clients have technology topics in their Codes of Conduct and provide our Technology Safety training to their employees and adult volunteers and similar training through our children’s learning program, it’s importance directly within ministries may need to be addressed.

COVID-19 may be letting the proverbial online social tech genie out of the bottle for youth ministries.

It may be time for religious institutions to seriously re-evaluate their organizational technology policies, in particular as they relate to youth ministries.

For example, in-person ministries normally require two adults present at all times when adults are working or volunteering with children. How will this translate to online in your youth ministries?

Your organization may decide to allow “approved” online platforms which are under the control of the organization (or at least the accounts are controlled by your organization) to be used for youth ministries. And in the process of youth groups using authorized platforms, your organization will need to consider having multiple, background-checked, and trained online monitors and facilitators so there are at least two adults monitoring all online communication, whether child to child or between adults and children.

It’s no guarantee ill-meaning adults won’t go off-grid and use alternate communication channels, but it sends a strong message that can be reinforced in policies and codes of conduct that communicating outside approved platforms places the adult in a position of potential negative consequences. Your organization may also have the ability in online platforms to document communications if needed.

May we all come out of this pandemic strengthened and in a better place to help protect children.

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