PALM BEACH GARDENS | “With the transition to at-home learning due to COVID-19, Internet safety is frontline,” wrote Lisa Linnell in a recent letter to the Diocese of Palm Beach’s Children’s Education Team. As theadministrator of Education and Training Programs for the Office of Safe Environments of the Diocese of Palm Beach, Linnell keeps in contact with this team of individuals consisting of leaders of schools, faith formation groups, youth ministry programs, home education groups, religious education programs, summer camp coordinators and compliance administrators throughout the diocese.
In preparation for April as National Child Abuse Prevention Month, the Office of Safe Environments is bolstering its training programs for both children and adults on the topic of internet safety. This is a vital shift in focus as many children and families rely on more internet use for school, entertainment and socialization brought about by social distancing due to COVID-19.
“We met virtually with the Office of Catholic Schools and the Office of Faith Formation and Youth Ministry to discuss what issues come up online and how we can keep students and educators safe in the digital world,” Linnell said. “Although being online physically separates students and educators, a new environment is created that can’t necessarily be controlled. For instance, classroom links can be shared with unknown individuals and conferencing sessions can be hacked.”
One way in which Linnell — joined by Kathy Casey, administrator of Background Screening, and Connie Oblaczynski, who manages much of the diocese’s fingerprinting process — guide students, parents and educators through these new challenges is by introducing new Internet safety resources to the Empowering God’s Children program for students and the VIRTUS program for adults.
This year Empowering God’s Children and VIRTUS are supplemented by resources from NetSmartz, a program developed by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and approved by the Diocese of Palm Beach. This collaborative program is age appropriate and includes videos and lessons to help children and adults learn how to protect themselves online. For children, this might look like identifying trusted adults, reporting signs of online exploitation or abuse and learning when to share information that might help protect their friends. For adults, this includes staying updated on new internet terms, familiarizing themselves with the new apps, games and social media platforms children use, how to approach children with questions about their internet use and how to create a safe environment for conversation.
“Staying current with our resources and information is key,” Linnell said, which is why each compliance administrator was supplied with information regarding the VIRTUS Catholic Curriculum along with a NetSmartz resource for each grade level with instructions, videos, reading materials and presentation guides. The compliance administrator is responsible for dispersing the curriculum to the appropriate educators in their parish, school or organization. In addition, every registered child in grades K-12 must be safety trained in accordance with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.
In addition, the Office of Safe Environments stated in keeping with the changes to the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which was updated in 2018, Bishop Gerald M. Barbarito promulgated significant revisions to the diocesan policy, Creating and Maintaining a Safe Environment for Minors and Vulnerable Adults. Pastors and school principals received a letter from the bishop in January of this year detailing these changes, the most significant being:
• The word “children” being replaced with the word “minors.”
• Expanding the definition of “Covered Volunteer” to mean any unpaid person engaged in or involved in any diocesan institution or parish activity who is entrusted with the care and supervision of minors or vulnerable adults, or has access or regular contact with minors or vulnerable adults in the performance of his/her ministry.
• Allemployees must complete VIRTUS training regardless of regular contact with minors and vulnerable adults, including those renewing their training.
• All new church personnel who are entrusted with the care or supervision of minors or vulnerable adults or who, in the performance of their ministry, have access or regular contact with minors and vulnerable adults must complete VIRTUS training before beginning work, ministry, or volunteer services.
• The removal of the 45-day grace period for completing VIRTUS.
Oblaczynski said in addition to these policy revisions, the diocese’s investment in new background screening equipment and software has been a “significant improvement to the efficiency and manner in which we can complete Florida Department of Law Enforcement and Federal Bureau of Investigation screening, otherwise known as level two background screenings and fingerprinting.” Linnell said the bishop’s revised policy will “keep up with the ongoing threats in society to our vulnerable and to ensure everyone is involved in our mission.”
Gina-Marie Loree, director of youth ministry and the compliance administrator at Holy Name of Jesus parish in West Palm Beach, said the additional NetSmartz information has been a beneficial support in the consistency of training when it comes to educating students at the parish level. Loree found the scenario exercises were the most practical and impactful on her students.
“These new materials have provided a great peace of mind knowing that students across the board are receiving the right training in how to handle dangerous situations. As someone who has worked with children in an education setting for many years, I feel that there isn’t such a thorough training as this except for in the Catholic environment. The title of the program — Empowering God’s Children — is appropriate. Sometimes, we don’t realize just how powerful children can be when they are empowered with the right tools.”
For Melissa Donlon, a guidance counselor at both St. Clare School in North Palm Beach and St. Luke School in Palm Springs, tackling the topic of cyberbullying is an important NetSmartz lesson she reinforces with her elementary and middle school students.
“With the students in person, we emphasize the power of kindness and how being kind can affect a person’s day or even life,” Donlon said. “We strive to teach students that kindness online is just as important as in person and that hiding behind mean words and actions in the digital world is hurtful in ways we might not be able to see.”
Donlon also appreciates she can incorporate the Empowering God’s Children resources into her guidance lessons and weekly emails to parents so that online safety tools can be reinforced at home. She feels that fifth grade is a critical age in which children’s relationship with adults can be easily influenced and focusing on identifying who is a trusted adult in a student’s circle, or building that relationship with their parents, is important.
“I had a parent tell me recently that an unknown person online used their child’s interest in soccer, which was posted about online, to try and meet them in person by promising a soccer meet up,” she said. “The student immediately told their parent and ended communication with that person. That was an incredible moment of a child reaching out for safety.”
• For information on diocesan policies and procedures for reporting abuse, as well as to view the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People and Code of Pastoral Conduct, visit diocesepb.org/ministriesoffices/offices/safe-environments.
• Learn more about National Child Abuse Prevention Month by visiting childwelfare.gov/topics/ preventing/preventionmonth.
• Download conference educational resources on abuse prevention at www.usccb.org/committees/ protection-children-young-people
• The Florida abuse hotline is 1-800-962-2873.