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Many churches and faith-based organisations have some sort of involvement in overseas mission and the positive contribution this makes to people’s lives around the world is well-known. However, recent headlines highlighting poor practice by some organisations working abroad have alerted society to the need for scrutiny around overseas missions.

When an organisation based in the United Kingdom sends someone to work or serve overseas, the expectation is that appropriate measures will be in place. This includes vetting the suitability of individuals and making sure their working practice is as safe as possible for themselves and the people they work with. Sadly, this has not always been the case. 

As the United Kingdom’s only independent Christian safeguarding charity working with churches and faith-based organisations, requests for Thirtyone:eight’s expertise in the area of safeguarding in international Christian work (ICW) have grown recently. 

This has compelled us to develop our support and base it on the latest understandings, statistics and research. However, with ICW we found limited knowledge about what is needed, particularly for sending organisations such as churches and charities.

We responded by commissioning Dr Lisa Oakley and Professor Moira Lafferty, from the School of Psychology at the University of Chester, to undertake research into safeguarding in ICW.

The research

The exploratory study used a questionnaire to discover the experiences of agencies supporting people in the United Kingdom engaged in ICW, as well as the experiences of individuals who engage in ICW. We published the findings of our research on 25th February 2021 in a report called: ‘Sending and serving safely’ which is available to download from our website.

69% of agencies and organisations surveyed in the research stated they had a written child safeguarding policy that included a section for those going overseas who will be contacting children and young people.

74% stated they provided ongoing child safeguarding support when individuals were overseas. 

86% stated they prepared individuals to address child safeguarding concerns that could arise overseas. 

Although this is certainly very encouraging, the results from individuals engaged in ICW (or in the past three years) showed a slightly different picture and highlights the difference between policy and process and the challenging reality of implementing these in practices on the ground.

44% of individuals stated they underwent recruitment processes when they applied for ICW.

56% stated their organisation had a child safeguarding policy covering working with children and young people in ICW.

31% stated they were provided with child safeguarding training.

47% felt the organisation helped to prepare them for any child safeguarding concerns that could arise. 

42% of individuals reported they encountered child safeguarding issues they had not been prepared for.

62% of those previously engaged in ICW reported they were not provided with a debrief. 

The safeguarding challenges identified were: 

  • Cultural differences in awareness and understandings of child safeguarding.
  • The need to work in a culturally sensitive way.
  • Issues around boundaries and legislation. 
  • The need for safeguarding procedures and oversight. 
  • Challenges associated with partnership working 
  • Safeguarding of individuals engaged in ICW. 

 Participants suggested areas that training should cover, including: 

  • Cultural differences and cultural sensitivity. 
  • Policies procedures and indicators. 
  • Awareness of safeguarding in host country. 

The answers provided by organisations showed awareness of the challenges of safeguarding internationally and provided detailed reflections. The major challenge seems to be implementing good safeguarding practice in a context of different cultures, whilst guarding against an ethnocentric mindset.

This raises some critical points but demonstrates awareness and engagement with safeguarding from organisations supporting those undertaking ICW. The responses from individuals who are, or have been engaged in ICW in many ways reflect that from organisations.

However, there were more comments on differences in understandings of child safeguarding in locations where there is limited or no equivalent understanding to the British context workers are from. The findings demonstrate some good practice but show further materials, support and training will enhance safeguarding for children and young people in ICW and those who engage in this work.  

Recommendations for improving practice and support: 

  1. Organisations which support individuals in ICW with children and young people should ensure they are safely recruiting those they are sending.   
  2. Cultural difference and sensitivities with regard to child protection should be specifically addressed by organisations as part of an individual’s preparation for ICW, including when and how to report concerns.
  3. Specific training which prepares individuals for ICW with children and young people should be developed and made accessible for organisations to offer to individuals before they undertake any work.  
  4. Organisations who support individuals in ICW should provide an opportunity for all workers to debrief.  
  5. Specific resources should be developed and made accessible to support organisations to help them recruit safely, support and equip individuals who engage with ICW through them.
  6. An awareness campaign aimed at organisations reminding them of the importance of safer recruitment should be developed to make this a common feature of all ICW. 

The findings of this research provide a foundation on which to further develop safeguarding policy and practice in this area.  What we have sought to do with this research is give a voice to the experience of those working on the frontline of ICW, so we can learn and develop methods to support them and fill any gaps in practice.  Through this report we have given recommendations which we hope will be a resource for anyone preparing to travel abroad to work with children and for the organisations that send and support them. 

Sarah Champion MP, Chair of the International Development Select Committee, commented on the research. She said: “Thirtyone:eight are uniquely placed to understand the issues of safeguarding in international work with children where there is a Christian faith basis. I am hugely encouraged that they have collaborated with the University of Chester to undertake this exploratory study into this under-researched area. The recommendations that this research have produced should be considered by all organisations who are engaged in international work with children and young people; whether this is short or longer term.”

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