As educators and schools are adapting to COVID-inspired changes in the way they teach, the Archdiocese of Washington’s Office of Child Protection & Safe Environment has adapted to meet those changes.

“During the pandemic, our office has created a virtual, interactive online training so community members can still be educated on the many important aspects of child protection and safe environment,” said Courtney Chase, executive director of Office of Child Protection & Safe Environment.

The archdiocese has had a written Child Protection Policy for more than 30 years. The policy mandates among its policies “a thorough background check for all employees and volunteers who have substantial contact with children,” Chase said.

“We do two forms of background checks – electronic background checks and fingerprinting – on employees, clergy, volunteers and anyone else who works with our kids,” she said. “Everyone is put through the same rigorous measure to make sure our kids are safe. During the pandemic, we are conducting electronic background checks, and when schools and churches are opened, we will do fingerprinting before they (volunteers, staff and others) can go in.”

The archdiocesan Child Protection Policy also requires anyone who has substantial contact with children to attend a Protecting God’s Children for Adults workshop. These child protection education workshops are offered in English and Spanish.

“We are offering these one-and-a-half-hour sessions online via Zoom to address the important steps in identifying signs of abuse and neglect and how to properly support and create a safe environment for the children within our care,” Chase said.

In addition, she said her office is teaming with schools and parishes “to work with parents and guardians to ensure that while their children are receiving appropriate academic and religious education, they are in a safe environment in a virtual setting.”

Chase said that parents must be aware of their student’s class schedules, religious education meetings, youth ministry events and other online activities because “we want to make sure that students are able to grow individually and independently with the support and protection of parents, teachers, catechists and priests.”

“It is critical that parents know what is going on,” she said. “Part of keeping a child safe is for parents to be present and involved. Parents must have open lines of communication because they have the absolute right to know what is going on with their child.”

She noted that even with the pandemic, “there are child protection coordinators on-site in every parish and every school to execute background checks. And they continue to work daily to ensure everybody is addressing child protection and safety.”

New this year, as students and teachers embark on their seventh month of social distancing and quarantine, is an emphasis on “creating a safe environment that includes looking for signs of stress or anxiety so that we can get through this pandemic together,” Chase said.

“Our families have been in lockdown mode since March. What started as a health crisis with the virus is now also a mental health crisis,” she said. “When we first went into lockdown, it was a time of high anxiety, like a lightning bolt of stress. People were rightly scared and nervous, and our children absorbed that, in addition to dealing with isolation.”

She said that “in supporting the efforts for a fruitful academic year, we are encouraging teachers, coaches and pastors to also be aware of our children’s mental health state.”

“We want to make sure they (students) are supported in their mental health.,” she said. “We are encouraging adults to look for signs of anxiety or depression and to make sure they contact us so we can help work with families to get them proper referrals, offering positive solutions and strategies to help families.”

With the Child Protection Policy, a child protection advisory board that reports directly to Archbishop Wilton Gregory, and extensive training for adults in how to protect children, the Archdiocese of Washington “is constantly at work to make sure our children are safe,” Chase said.

The more than 30-year-old Child Protection Policy is frequently updated and is revised every four years, Chase said. It mandates the reporting of allegations of mistreatment of children to civil authorities, assisting those who have been harmed, and extensive education and training on how to prevent and identify mistreatment of children and youth.

The Archdiocese of Washington’s Child Protection Policy was instituted in 1986 as one of the first such policies in the nation and has been used as a model for dioceses nationwide. The policy was updated in 1993, 1999, 2003, 2007, 2013 and 2019 to incorporate enhancements in child protection and oversight.

The 2019 update reflects an expanded scope, as the archdiocese’s Child Protection and Safe Environment Policy, to emphasize the importance of ensuring safe environments for people of all ages, protecting children from sexual abuse and adults from sexual harassment or abuses of power.

“We do have a very extensive victim assistance program, therapy resources and extensive safe environment training programs,” Chase said. “We take this so seriously that those who are not compliant cannot participate in our schools and other programs. We do this to ensure that child protection is universally implemented and enforced throughout all areas of the archdiocese. “

Chase added that child protection policies not only apply to those working in schools, but to anyone who has contact with children, including those who participate in religious education, CYO activities, parish activities, retreats and any other Church-related activity.

She noted that her office is “100 percent transparent in what we do” and is audited each year. The results of that audit are published annually in the Catholic Standard and online. The archdiocesan Child Protection Advisory Board, she said, “monitors compliance with child protection efforts as well as reviewing reports of historic and current allegations of abuse.”

Chase has headed the Office of Child Protection & Safe Environment for six years. She has two master’s degrees – one in social work and one in business administration. Previously, she was an investigative social worker for the Montgomery County Child Sexual Abuse and Fatality Unit of Child Welfare Services. She also served formerly as director of counseling at Connelly School of the Holy Child in Potomac, Maryland. 

“The phone number for the Office of Child Protection & Safe Environment is 301-853-5328,” Chase said. “Call anytime. Our offices are always available to answer questions and hear concerns. Everybody has the right to have understanding and clarity when it comes to the protection of children and minors in the Archdiocese of Washington.”

(The Archdiocese of Washington makes resources and information about protecting children available online www.adw.org/childprotection. There, parents will find information on the archdiocese’s child protection efforts, safety tips, how to recognize Internet and cyber bullying and other information.)