Sunday Morning Strategies: Dealing With Legal Issues
Welcome back as we continue our “Sunday Morning Strategies” series designed to help you to accommodate children of divorce and children from single parent homes in your Sunday morning children’s ministry. In this installment we are going to explore some of the legal issues related to a divorce or separation that you need to be aware of in terms of your children’s ministry and the safety of the children left in your care. This advice is given from the perspective of a children’s ministry worker and should not be construed as legal advice. You should check with your attorney or insurance carrier for specific advice or requirements for your church.
The biggest legal concern you should have as someone entrusted by at least one parent with the care of their child(ren) is any custody issue that may arise out of the divorce or current requirements related to the child. The last thing you want to do is to be responsible for releasing a child to a parent who is not supposed to have custody of the child for some reason or another. Even if that parent is a member of your congregation, you have a responsibility to adhere to any court ordered or agreed visitation and custody schedule.
Make sure that you have a plan in place for who can pick up all of the children in your ministry, but this is particularly important in the case of a contentious custody battle. In our Divorce Ministry classes, we ask parents to let us know if someone other than they will be picking up the child, and we still require photo ID before we will release the child. I explain to all of the parents in orientation that I would rather annoy a grandma and grandpa than do anything to endanger the welfare of their child(ren). We also ask specifically if there is anyone who is not allowed to pick up the child. All volunteers should be made aware of this situation in order to avoid releasing the child to the “wrong” parent.
You should also give some thought to your procedure for allowing people to pick up children without the proper pickup tag (or whatever system you use in your church). In one church I served in, our procedure for a missing tag was to ask the child who the person was that was picking them up. This worked well to ensure it was not a stranger picking up the child, but it would be insufficient in the case of estranged parents battling over custody. In that case, a child may be ecstatic to see a non-custodial parent who the court has ordered, for one reason or another, to have limited visitation.
My suggestion would be that you regularly have parents update the list of approved people allowed to pick up the kids from church (as well as people who specifically may not pick up the kids) and let them know that they need to let you know about any changes in that list as soon as possible. If you become aware of a situation where parents’ are splitting up, talk to the parent who drops the child off. Make sure you are discreet (you don’t want to start rumors), but explain that you understand there may be some issues in the marriage. Explain that you want to let them know that you are there for them and their children and ask specifically if there is anything you need to be aware of regarding custody issues and who can pick the children up from church. It won’t be a comfortable conversation, but it will help to ensure that children are where they are supposed to be and with the people they are supposed to be with.
Child Protective Services Investigations/Restraining Orders
Unfortunately, divorce proceedings may be associated with a CPS Investigation or a Restraining Order where one parent has accused another parent of something. Oftentimes, this is used as a tactic by one parent to gain leverage (which is a whole separate issue), but sometimes these investigations and allegations are legitimate as people will do and say things in the context of a divorce that they might not otherwise do or say. Regardless of how you view the circumstances, as someone entrusted with the care of a child, it is your job to know about the existence of these situations, adhere to any restrictions and report anything you might know.
Being an Advocate
In divorce cases (particularly contentious divorce cases), both parties generally try to “rally the troops” and gather people who will support them in their “side of the story.” Aside from the fact that the truth usually lies somewhere in the middle, you want to make sure that you are not seen as taking side. Your role should be as an advocate for the child(ren). Chances are no one else is looking out for the children, and you can fill that gap. It is not your role to, nor should you, advocate for one parent over the other. Children deserve to be able to love both of their parents and as someone they trust and look up to, you can (and should) be the one who models that for them. Let parents know that, while you are available to help them, your main goal is to protect and advocate for their children.
Confidentiality is key in dealing with children of divorce. Unless there is a situation involving abuse or neglect, children need to know that they can count on you keeping their story confidential. Avoid the word “secret” as it has some negative connotations, but assure a child that unless you feel like what they have told you indicates they or someone else is in danger, you will keep what they tell you confidential. It is hard for kids to trust adults after their parents have separated or divorced. Your assurance of (and following through on) confidentiality in regards to what they tell you will give them the freedom to open up and share.
It is also important that you not engage in or condone general gossiping about the divorce in church. Unfortunately, stories tend to travel quickly through a congregation, and kids oftentimes end up being judged by their parents’ behavior. As an advocate for the kids, we should do our part to be discreet and not add to an already stressful situation for the kids in our ministry.
Keeping Key Documents
It is important that you keep records about the families and kids in your ministry so that you, and your volunteers, can refer back to them when necessary. Collect detailed information in the registration process about the structure of families and different relationships within the family. Leave space on the registration form for any additional information that the family feels like you, as the leader of the children’s ministry, needs to know to effectively minister to their kid(s). Follow up regularly with re-registration and have families update that information so that your records are current.
Honoring the Legal Process
You may not agree with how divorce cases unfold or the decisions issued by a court. However, we are called to honor the decisions of those put in authority over us. That includes the courts. Make sure that you and your church are doing everything you can to honor the legal process even where you may disagree with it. Absent the threat of immediate danger to the child, make sure you not circumventing the process or the rulings of the court. That means that no matter how much of a jerk you might think Dad is, if the court decided dad get to pick up little Johnny from church every Sunday morning, honor that decision.
Divorce breaks a family apart and sets children on a brand new life course. As a church, divorced parents with kids in your ministry will raise a host of issues for you. Keeping track of custody issues, understanding family arrangement and other issues will require that you have a system in place. It is important that you take the time to set up these systems whether you have 1,000 kids in your ministry, 100 kids or 10.
This article is updated and adapted from an article originally published on Divorce Ministry 4 Kids on August 26, 2013.