Faith and Family: Keeping children safe at church — Protecting children’s physical safety at church requires supervision, risk management

Playground injuries. Teens killed in van accidents. Babies left in hot vehicles. Drownings. Skiing accidents.

It’s no wonder parents feel anxious about leaving their children in the care of others, even at church. But parents should not have to worry about their children at church, said Chip Smith, an associate in the office of LeaderCare and church administration at the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions (SBOM).

“Parents expect church to be a safe place,” he said. “They want to know that their child is going to be cared for in all possible ways.”

Still accidents do happen. Take playgrounds for example. Some 200,000 children ages 14 and younger are treated in emergency departments each year for playground-related injuries, according to data reported by the Centers for Disease Control. Though hundreds of thousands of children play on playgrounds without injury, those supervising children on the church playground must be vigilant to guard against risks like faulty equipment, falls or very hot play surfaces, Smith said.

Church nurseries

Another danger many churches overlook is in the church nursery. A 2011 article in the journal Pediatrics reported that on average 10,000 children younger than 2 years of age were treated in emergency departments in the United States for injuries related to cribs, playpens and bassinets from 1990 to 2008.

In June 2011 updated federal safety standards went into effect that prohibited the manufacture or sale of drop-side-rail cribs.

While only church nurseries that pay staff or charge a fee for child care are required to use compliant cribs, Smith said all churches should consider updating their equipment.

“Using cribs that do not meet the new standards may pose a danger to children and leave the church open to greater liability,” Smith said.

Smith conducts workshops each year in associations around the state on church safety and security. The workshop and resources are made possible by gifts from Alabama Baptists through the Cooperative Program.

One point he emphasizes is that church safety is primarily about risk management.

“Churches have to assess the risks around their facilities and in their activities and ask themselves, ‘How am I going to manage that risk?’” Smith said.

Some risks require a minimal financial investment, like replacing outdated cribs. Some risks may require a more significant investment.

Fifteen-passenger vans are a good example. An Internet search of “rollovers” and “church vans” will bring up many stories of young people and leaders killed while traveling in the vehicles commonly used by day cares, churches and other organizations.

A 2004 study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that the odds of rollover for a 15-passenger van increased more than 400 percent when fully loaded, compared with a driver traveling alone.

Federal law now prohibits the sale of large passenger vans to day care centers transporting children to and from school, but a 2012 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reported that more than 670,000 15-passenger vans were still on the road in 2012.

While newer models come equipped with electronic stability control systems, automatic tire pressure monitoring systems, anti-lock brakes and other safety features that help address their risk of rolling over, most older models don’t have this technology, according to Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Company.

Smith recommends that churches who provide transportation use buses or mini-buses, but churches who cannot afford to replace vans can take immediate steps to minimize the dangers of a 15-passenger van, experts say.

According to Brotherhood Mutual, “The quickest, most inexpensive way to reduce rollover risk in a 15-passenger van is to remove the rear seat. Doing so reduces the van’s capacity to 11 passengers and distributes weight in front of the rear axle.”

In addition, vans should not tow trailers or travel more than 60 miles per hour, luggage should not be put in the roof or in the removed back seat area, and all passengers should be wearing seat belts, Smith said.

Finally NHTSA says a common contributor to rollover crashes is improperly inflated tires or old tires, so any church using a 15-passenger van should regularly inspect the tires for signs of wear and ensure proper inflation before starting out on any trip.

Keeping a watchful eye

Careful supervision by leaders also is essential for safety at church, Smith said.

Children do unpredictable things, like run into the street, roughhouse with each other, eat things they shouldn’t and touch things they shouldn’t, Smith said. And that’s just during normal church activities.

Consider that many churches take kids snowboarding and swimming, both inherently high-risk activities. Even inflatables pose a significant risk. An analysis of data published in Pediatrics found that in 2010 a total of 31 children per day received emergency care for inflatable bounce house-related injuries, most commonly fractures, strains or sprains.

“Some activities are just high risk, so church leaders and volunteers have to carefully oversee all of that,” Smith said.

“I joke that if you have a trampoline at your church, you’re just waiting for something to happen. Churches have to use some good sense when it comes to assessing the risks of their activities and managing those risks to keep kids as safe as possible.”’