When parents want to pick up their child from First Baptist Church of Gainesville’s children’s ministry, the process is a bit more complicated than simply popping in and scooping up the children.
"All of our doors automatically lock, so you can only get in if one of the paid employees buzzes you in," said the Rev. Jenny Burns, First Baptist associate pastor of preschool and special ministries. "As a parent, you can’t just walk back and get your child."
Every time children are checked in, they are given a sticker with their name, their parents’ names and any allergies they have. Parents are handed a pager in case the church staff needs to get in touch with them.
"Once they turn (the pager) in, they can get buzzed back into the area where their children are," Burns said.
Decades earlier, parents could simply sign their names and children’s name on a piece of paper on a clipboard. Now, safety precautions taken at church nurseries, preschools and day cares have been revolutionized with the advent of technology. Instead of knocking on a door and entering a children’s area, parents and guardians must be buzzed into the building. Instead of children running to play with fellow classmates, they must be labeled with stickers or badges first.
But Burns doesn’t hesitate to admit the precautions offer parents peace of mind in an increasingly uncertain world.
Father of two and a local educator, JJ Wiley agrees.
"It makes me feel like it’s another safeguard keeping my child safe," Wiley said while dropping off his two young sons at Lakewood Baptist Church on Thompson Bridge Road.
At Lakewood Baptist, the colorful child-friendly corridor reserved for the children’s ministry’s Wee Care and GroZone programs, which care for infants through 4-year-olds, is segmented. A volunteer or employee sits at every potential entrance during drop-off and check-in. Computer-generated ID badges are used to identify parents and children.
Lakewood utilizes a two-pronged approach when it comes to child safety: what it can do to prevent threats from entering the children’s area, and what it can do to keep the area safe when children are in it.
"Child safety is at the forefront of concern these days," said Elizabeth Ormsbee, Lakewood’s children’s ministry director. "For a long time, we’ve tried to be vigilant in that area, especially with conducting background checks responsibly. But just as important is what we try to do on campus whenever children are present."
Off-duty police officers are also on Lakewood’s campus at all times. While the officers traverse the whole campus, typically an officer is always in the children’s area.
"That’s been a really great thing for us," Ormsbee said. "We have a great relationship with those guys, and our children do, too. It’s just been building good relationships between law enforcement and our children."
No particular event sparked the need for increased security when Lakewood decided to utilize off-duty police officers 5« years ago. Instead, Ormsbee credits the church’s security ministry for simply thinking ahead.
"We had some forward-thinking folks that thought, ‘We’re going to go ahead and implement this, because we’ve not had any problems and we don’t want to have any,’" Ormsbee said.
Security precautions such as badges and automatically locking doors can serve multiple purposes when it comes to keeping children safe.
At First Baptist, the stickers ensure volunteers are aware of a child’s allergies, which Burns said are "so crazy nowadays."
Stickers also help ward against one of the biggest hazards to child safety, and it has nothing to do with strangers.
"(The security system) helps with custody issues," Burns said. "We know which parents can pick up and which parents can’t."
The building’s doors, which lock automatically and can’t be accessed by anyone except church employees, also prevent the wrong parent from taking a child.
"If somebody shows up to pick up a child (who) isn’t allowed to pick up that child, we can keep everyone safe," Burns said. "We just don’t unlock the door until we can get the proper help or assistance that’s needed."
Burns stresses the measures are simply precautions.
"I don’t believe at all that we’re in an area or in a setting where our children are unsafe, and that we’re constantly having to keep negative things out," Burns said. "We’re just prepared if something should happen."
Times old and new
While parents applaud any efforts to keep their children secure, many still long for the day when such measures weren’t necessary.
"When I was little, we were outside," Ormsbee said. "We were freer to go to neighbors’ houses and stuff like that. I hear parents often talk about ‘My kids just don’t get to do that. I wish it was more like it was when I was a kid.’"
Despite any lingering nostalgia, parents in the new millennium recognize they have to live in the world not as it was but as it is now.
"I think it’s just the nature of parents being more cautious in general," Ormsbee said.
The additional security measures also may be a draw for parents considering a potential church family.
"I do think it is comforting for parents to know we are making these efforts on campus at church," Ormsbee said. "I think more parents are looking for those kinds of things when they’re looking for a church home."
But Wiley added child care in the 21st Century hasn’t become completely impersonal.
"I think that because of the people we have here, running the system, there’s no loss of the personal touch, which is amazing," he said.