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Attempted abduction at Michigan church raises security questions

On a recent Sunday morning at the Mason, Mich., church, a stranger in a Hooters restaurant T-shirt approached a 12-year-old girl in the foyer and asked her to leave with him. The girl then did exactly what she should have, police say: She told an adult. Pulling her aunt aside and whispering what the man had said to her, the girl helped derail what minister Ron Brown called a “brazen” attempt to kidnap her.
“She obviously was shaken and afraid,” Brown said of the girl, who was approached as she walked from her Sunday school class to worship June 4. “But she handled the situation perfectly.”
Brown called police, who found a 48-year-old man fitting the girl’s description walking away from the church. He was arrested and charged with one felony count of enticing a minor.
The 50-member congregation will evaluate its security practices, he said, and perhaps ask someone to stand guard by the front doors.
“It was a strange situation and one we think was isolated, but it’s good to be watchful,” Brown said.
Vigilance is the key to keeping kids safe at a congregation of any size, experts say. Church leaders must balance the inviting, accepting environment they work hard to create with invisible barriers and limited access to their youngest members, while teaching older children how to be welcoming – yet alert.
“I have a recurrent nightmare about someone walking into a church building and taking a child,” said Sheree Hill, director of education at the North Atlanta church.
The 1,430-member congregation serves 550 children each week in its Bible class and child care programs. Adults who wish to teach or care for infants in the nursery must submit to a background check. Monitors carrying walkie-talkies walk the hallways before, during and after services to make sure children of all ages are accompanied only by adults staffers recognize.
Hill said her concerns are kept in check by carefully thought out practices and preventive methods, but that a little fear is a good thing.
“I’m horrified by what happened in Michigan,” she said. “Honestly, though, I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often.
“We’re very trusting, and the world isn’t a trust-friendly place.”
Rachel Thurman hid mostly in dark closets and behind trees, her preferred spots for a game of hide-and-go-seek, with her friends after worship.
That was 25 years ago. Today, her children must always be visible after the closing prayer, said the director of child care for the 1,250-member Pleasant Valley church in Little Rock, Ark.
“I don’t know everyone here, it’s just not the same as when I was growing up,” Thurman said. “Before, during and after church we have to be thinking about where our children are to make sure everyone is safe.”
In her job as child care director, Thurman said a few times each year she or one of her teachers sees someone outside a classroom they don’t recognize. Or someone other than an adult listed on an approved list arrives to pick up a student.
“We’ve always resolved the situation well, but that’s because we have procedure in place,” she said. “In today’s world, taking child safety seriously means thinking and taking precautions.”
Both Pleasant Valley and North Atlanta are among a growing number of congregations that now require children to have computer-generated name tags with encoded information that are worn while the child is in the church building. Other churches give parents pagers that must be returned before a child is released.
But older children – especially pre-teens – who walk church corridors alone or with friends must be taught how to distinguish between normal conversation with fellow churchgoers and inquiries or requests that are anything but normal, Hill said.
“It’s not that I’m a gloom and doom prophet … we know for a fact there’s opportunity at many times each Sunday for our children to be approached,” she said. “We have to protect them when they’re young and teach them along the way to keep their guard up.”
July 1, 2006

Filed under: National Staff Reports

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