Child porn arrest points to limited NC oversight of church day schools

Fellowship Presbyterian Church in Greensboro operates Fellowship Day School. Former employee Alyson Brooke Saunders has been charged with multiple child sex crimes allegedly committed at the school. Neill Caldwell / Carolina Public Press

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security arrested a Greensboro church day school employee last month on multiple sexual charges related to children.

The arrest did not originate with local or state oversight but resulted from an international tip, according to Homeland Security. Only later did the State Bureau of Investigation become involved.

State oversight for private schools in North Carolina is limited. Beyond requiring fire drills, protective eyewear for shop and science classes, immunization records and standardized testing, there is not much that state law demands of North Carolina private schools.

And some of the oversight that does exist doesn’t apply to preschools, especially those operated by houses of worship.

Many private schools were created for the express purpose of being beyond the state’s many rules and regulations governing public education. Many faith-based schools were started by independent churches that also do not answer to any system of denominational authority, though that was not the case in the Greensboro incident.

The Greensboro case

Alyson Brooke Saunders, 23, who worked at Fellowship Presbyterian Church’s Fellowship Day School in Greensboro, was jailed April 5 on charges of first-degree sexual exploitation of a minor, sex offense on a child by an adult, indecent liberties with a child and crimes against nature, according to a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement statement, following an international investigation.

Saunders had worked at the school for five years, starting when she was a teenager. Upon learning of the investigation, the school initially suspended Saunders, then fired her following her arrest.

In late February, Homeland Security Investigations in Winston-Salem received a tip from the Homeland Security Investigations’ office in London that an individual arrested on child pornography charges in Britain had communicated online with Saunders, according to the agency.

In response, federal agents conducted a consensual interview with Saunders and received consent to preview her electronic media, the SBI reported.

Investigators found photos and videos depicting indecent liberties against child victims who were between the ages of 2 and 3, according to warrants.

The abuse allegedly happened at the day care center, some of it on a changing room table, WGHP-TV reported. The crimes against nature charge involved a dog, the station said, adding that other details were too graphic to report.

A statement posted to the church’s website said Homeland Security agents contacted the church in early March and it has cooperated since that time. The church’s statement said five children attending the school were thought to be involved but that Saunders’ alleged inappropriate actions with the children did not include physical contact.

Saunders is being held under a $1 million bond and was appointed a public defender. Two of her charges could keep her in prison for life without the possibility of parole.

Fellowship Day School is a part of Fellowship Presbyterian Church, which in turn is part of the Salem Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church USA.

The denomination’s Child Advocacy Network began creating a child safety policy for churches and church schools in 2012. The Salem Presbytery also offers workshops for churches and church-related facilities on child safety issues.

Fellowship Day School noted that it “had operated without any incidents since its founding in 1997. The school places a strong emphasis on protecting the safety of all of its children, and the school and its staff, and the leadership of the church, are devastated by the allegations that have come to light.”

The church has announced the formation of a task force to examine the security situation that led to the charges against Saunders. Although no public officials told them they had to do so, church officials said they reported the situation to Child Protective Services of Guilford County.

The church has also disclosed that Saunders is related to the school’s assistant executive director, who was described as “shocked and heartbroken.” That individual, the church said, will not be involved in the task force or the investigation.

State oversight

While day care facilities are regulated by the state’s Division of Child Development and Early Education — which falls under the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services — only lead teachers are required by the state to be credentialed.

Other teachers need only be age 18 or older and submit to a criminal background check. Religious-sponsored programs are given the option to operate under a “notice of compliance,” with child care rules and laws rather than a license.

The N.C. Division of Child Development oversees programs that involve any children younger than age 5 who are on the premises for more than four hours daily.

A criminal background check can be obtained only through the SBI for $15 for a statewide search or $40 to search both state and federal records. The state Division of Non-Public Education “strongly encourages” criminal background checks for potential hires but does not require them.

Background checks aren’t necessarily a guarantee for stopping potential offenders. Fellowship Day School leaders said they had performed a background check on Saunders before hiring her. That check did not show any reason for concern, they said.

Church efforts

Churches are also feeling the pressure to reassure parents as to the safety of their children, including those without weekday education facilities and those without.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America created a document called “Safe Connections: What parishioners can do to understand and prevent clergy sexual abuse” in 1996 and has many resources on the denomination’s website related to this issue.

In 2017, the Episcopal Church in America and other branches of the Anglican communion created the Safe Church Commission to create safe spaces for “all people, especially children, young people and vulnerable adults” and expand on a program created in 2012.

The United Methodist Church in 1996 adopted a plan of policies and procedures for churches, day cares and church schools called Safe Sanctuaries, which is intended to keep children, youths and vulnerable adults safe from abuse. These policies range from having two adults together in supervisory roles instead of only one to adding windows to doors of rooms where children are supervised. Safe Sanctuaries policies also include the utilization of national background checks to screen staff and volunteer candidates before they supervise others.

“Safe Sanctuaries provides that every local church have a policy and procedures in order to provide safe and sacred spaces that care for the whole child of God — emotionally, physically, spiritually and cognitively,” said Michelle Foster-Beckerleg, an ordained deacon and pastor of Congregational Care and Adult Spiritual Formation at Covenant United Methodist Church in High Point.

She serves as the coordinator of Safe Sanctuaries for the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.

“Each local church or ministry setting has some discretion as to what these procedures may look like for their particular context, with adherence to a minimum set of procedures that are common to all settings.

“The requirement of a national criminal background check and the national sex offenders registry check is a strong deterrent to those looking for easy access to children for inappropriate means,” Foster-Beckerleg added.

“The practice of (having) two adults wherever children and youths are gathered has greatly reduced the liability of false accusation from a child to an adult as well as the lessened the likelihood of misconduct or abuse occurring to a minor.”

Foster-Beckerleg said the program has also created greater awareness in the insurance industry.

Many insurance companies are now requiring that churches, especially those that have schools or day care facilities, develop and adhere to a protection policy for the prevention of child abuse in order to be adequately insured for sexual misconduct liability.

Similar changes may be among those under consideration at Fellowship Presbyterian as its task force looks at what went wrong.

In the most recent of several updates to statements about the incident, the Greensboro church offered to connect people with professional counseling services.

“Last, we ask for everyone’s continued prayers,” the statement said. “The day school is a nonprofit operation that exists
solely to help children and their families.”