The question of retention of safeguarding records does not have a simple and definitive answer and there is no clear guidance specifically for churches. This page intentionally does not try to give a specific answer to the question but rather aims to highlight the principles and issues that need to be considered. We recommend that churches consider these principles and then formulate a clear policy that explains the rationale and stipulates the retention periods for the different types of records.
Consideration of this issue needs to balance the following:
• The requirements of data protection legislation to only hold relevant and up-to-date information
• The requirements of safeguarding authorities for information about current or past concerns about individual children
• The need to respond to current or historic allegations of abuse
One useful guidance to consider when making our decisions is produced by the Records Management Society who produce guidance for schools. Obviously, this is not specific to churches, but it provides a useful start point. It leans towards the data protection side of the consideration. It can be found here.
The Church of England have also produced a guide for their churches which is also worth considering. This guidance leans more towards a robust approach to historic allegations of abuse and so places greater emphasis on those considerations. It can be found here.
This page approaches this subject from a safeguarding perspective since that is our area of expertise, but it is important that the data protection considerations are given due weight in this consideration; especially in light of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
The safeguarding of children and adults must be of paramount importance to us as churches, however, we must also recognise that we have a responsibility to the staff and volunteers who engage in ministry on our behalf. Over recent years we have seen a significant rise in allegations of historic abuse; in some cases reaching back 70 years or even more. While we should anticipate that safeguarding improvements and changes to practice since the 1960’s should mean that today’s children are more effectively safeguarded that previous generations, consideration should be given to the possibility of future historic allegations relating to our current (or even our future) ministry. This is influencing the approach taken by some churches.
The most sensitive information that we hold relates to either concerns about a child or allegations against a member of staff. This must obviously be stored securely. Both types of information should be held in confidential files and not with other more generic data.
Concerns about or disclosures made by a child or young person.
The guidance for schools that has been issued by the Records Management Society indicates that schools should retain the child’s safeguarding confidential file until the child’s 25th birthday. The Church of England guidance for their churches indicates that they should retain the records for 70 years. We would suggest that until the child’s 25th birthday is the minimum retention period that the church should consider.
Allegations against a member of staff or volunteer.
The guidance for schools that has been issued by the Records Management Society indicates that the school should retain the confidential file relating to the allegation against the adult until their normal retirement age or for 10 years; whichever is the greater. The issue for churches is that volunteers may continue working with children beyond retirement age and so to reflect the same principle, a modification may need to be made. The Church of England guidance indicates that such records should be retained for 75 years from the date on which employment (or volunteering) ceases. We would suggest that for churches, retirement age is too early and that churches should consider a longer retention period and the minimum retention period of 10 years should also be considered as an absolute minimum.
Consent forms for attendance at children’s / youth activity.
Consent to attend groups and consent for trips etc. should be given serious consideration. Given that these forms will include information that may be considered sensitive; addresses, contact numbers, medical information etc. it is important that information is not retained unnecessarily. We would suggest that destruction of the consent forms should be completed when the child ceases to attend the group. If explicit consent is given for trips or other activities, this does not need to be retained beyond the specific activity, however, if there was a serious accident or incident, it will be important to retain them for longer (the Records Management Society suggest 25 years to schools). The period of retention for a more general consent to attend a group would be guided by the method used for gaining consent.
Children’s attendance at groups.
The Record Management Societies guidance for schools indicates that attendance records should be retained for 3 years. The Church of England guidance does not stipulate a retention period, however, the Methodist Church guidance of best practice in retaining records indicates that attendance records should be archived and retained permanently. The guidance can be found here. We would suggest that retention of attendance information in an archive should be sufficient to identify when children attended and which leaders were working in groups in the event of future allegations of historic abuse and so should coincide with the retention of records of allegations against a member of staff or volunteer.