What the Church needs to know about confidentiality

To be safe and welcoming, it is vital that churches understand and respect the need for confidentiality.

Everybody in the Church will have some things that they’d like to keep to themselves, but when it comes to being a safe and welcoming place for looked after children and their families, it is vital that churches understand and respect the need for confidentiality.

We hope that these five things the church needs to know about confidentiality will explain, equip and inspire you to be more aware – and to be able to respond with care and practical steps where needed.

1. Carers are not being ‘paranoid’ or ‘over-sensitive’

When children are being looked after they are in the care of the Local Authority, sometimes still in partnership with birth parents, or sometimes the Local Authority has full parental responsibility.

Foster carers welcome the children into their family on behalf of the Local Authority, but they do not become the children’s parents, and when children are placed for adoption it will usually take a minimum of eight months before parental responsibility is fully passed on to the adoptive parents. In some cases this can take more than a year.

Therefore, it is part of the agreement with the Local Authority that children will be carefully protected by those caring for them on their behalf.

Foster carers, kinship carers and adoptive parents are not just being fussy, they are following strict rules they must agree to, which prevent them from discussing the child they are caring for with anyone.

As the Church, we need to respect this and support parents and carers in following these guidelines. It is natural to want to talk about those whom you love and care for, especially if you want to ask for prayer or further help, but they will not always be able to do so. Don’t probe them with questions, be willing to love and pray without all the information, and always let the parents and carers guide the conversation.

2. It is more than information, it is the children’s life story

Just as we would allow an adult the right to withhold sensitive information about themselves, we should extend the same respect to looked after children. While in many cases conversations will begin from a place of care, to discuss personal details of the child’s history can become dishonourable to them and to the adults they will grow to be.

A person’s experiences belong to them, and it should be their choice if, when, where, and with whom they are disclosed.

It is also highly likely that a looked after child’s history will include sensitive information about their birth family. While the actions or decisions of the birth family may not have been right or beneficial for the child, children are likely to still care about their birth family, so it is important that the child’s feelings are valued and their birth family is respected.

3. Names and photographs are precious and need to be kept safe

It will mean such a lot to the parents and carers in your church if you learn the names of the children in their care, and to the children themselves when they are old enough to understand, but you need to be very careful how and where these names are used. For most looked after children it is important for their safety that their whereabouts is protected.

Talk to the parents and carers about how information is stored and shared, and work out together the best way to do this for their children. Children’s and youth workers may need to adapt their processes in order for them to be suitable, for example, in the way children are registered or collected for their groups on a Sunday morning or midweek.

Names and images should never be used in a public forum such as a church notice sheet, website or blog and, most importantly, names and photographs should NEVER be used or shared on social media – even if you have high privacy settings.

Always ask parents and carers before taking photographs and talk to them about any that you have – it may be that they would like a copy for the child’s life story book. But it may not be appropriate for you to have any photographs of the children at all, and if that is the case, then it is important you respect these wishes.

4. Confidentiality still applies to adopted children – even years later

Even if a child has been adopted as a young baby or if they have been with their adoptive family for many years, confidentiality should still be considered. Allow the adoptive parents to guide you on this, especially on where and when names and photographs can be used.

If an older child or teenager wants to talk about their adoption or family history, child protection safeguarding principles should be followed, and anything they disclose should be treated appropriately. As far as possible, ensure the adoptive parents are aware that they are talking with you.

Equally, if an older child or teenager doesn’t want to talk about being adopted or chooses for this not to be widely known, their wishes should be respected.

5. Understanding and respecting confidentiality will mean a huge amount to foster and adoptive families

In so many areas of life, looked after children and their families are made to feel different and are often faced with multiple challenges and hoops to jump through. By being aware of confidentiality issues and adapting as necessary you will be showing real value to vulnerable children and those who care for them.

Please do consider how you and your church could do this. By fully embracing these principles and allowing them to shape your structures, you will be giving a clear message of welcome and worth, and ensuring that foster and adoptive families have a safe, secure and loving home in your church.

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