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Advances in new technology, awareness making churches safer for future generations

 

It was a cold November night, weather reports predicted the first frost of the season. The ride to the small Atlanta church wasn't long and the car was warm.

During the ride, 3-year-old Linda Foley recited for her parents the Bible verse she had been learning that week: "And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose."

At church the little girl decided she wanted to stay in the worship service with her parents instead of heading for the nursery. But about halfway through the service, Linda had to use the restroom. She asked her parents if she could go by herself. Her father said that would be fine; her mother told her to return quickly.

Heading downstairs to the restroom, the toddler was surprised to see a man she didn't know standing in the stairwell. He spoke to her; she told him she had to go potty.

Returning up the stairs, she was startled to see the man still standing in the stairwell.

"I know you don't know me," he said. "But I've got some candy in my truck. And I've got a little girl at home just your age who would really like to play with you. Would you like to go see her?"

The youngster thought that might be nice and walked out of the building with the tall dark haired man. The two got in his truck and drove away.

He took the little girl to a motel where she was fascinated by the pink and green neon flashing light. Walking up to his room, Linda saw a scruffy looking old man sitting in a lawn chair next door. The man told this neighbor that Linda was his daughter. When the youngster started to correct him, he hustled her into his room.

There was no other little girl for Linda to play with, but he did offer her milk and a soft drink. The television blared all evening and sometime during the night the stranger sexually abused 3-year-old Linda.

 

"Jesus loves me this I know ... "

 

When Linda didn't return to the worship service, her parents weren't particularly concerned. They knew she was fond of the woman who worked in the nursery and assumed their daughter had decided to stay downstairs.

But when they went looking for her they discovered there had been no one in the nursery that night. They didn't think she would have wandered outside, so church members began to search the building. When Linda wasn't found, they called the police.

The police organized a search of the area, including the wooded area behind the church building. They alerted television and radio stations and hundreds of people showed up to help search for the little girl.

After several hours, a police officer tried to prepare Charles and Carolyn Foley. It was cold outside and Linda's coat was still in the church. If she had wandered off she wouldn't make it through the night dressed only in a sweater and skirt. And if she had been kidnapped it was most likely she would not be returned unharmed.

 

" ... for the Bible tells me so ... "

 

The 11 p.m. news came on, the television was still on in the little motel room. The lead story was about a 3 year old girl who was missing from an Atlanta church. Linda Foley's face flashed on the screen. Then her parents began to talk, pleading for the return of their child.

The little girl recognized her parents and asked the dark haired man, "Why are my parents on TV?"

He immediately became agitated and the little girl knew something was wrong. After several minutes of pacing, the tall man pulled out a shotgun and began cleaning the long barrel with a piece of cloth.

 

" ... little ones to Him belong ... "

 

Charles and Carolyn Foley were still at the church, which had become the headquarters for the search teams. As they waited for word of their daughter in the early morning hours, a retired pastor who knew the Foley family came to pray with them.

He took the couple into the sanctuary and began to pray. Charles Foley still remembers the pastor's specific requests to God: that whoever had Linda would not harm her; that she would be released; that whoever had her would not release her in a secluded area, but on a city street where some person would find her quickly.

Then in his prayer, the old pastor quoted the Bible, "And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose."

As he prayed, the couple remembered their daughter's voice reciting that same scripture hours earlier.

 

" ... they are weak, but... "

 

Linda had fallen asleep on the motel bed. But while the night was still dark her abductor woke her and told her they had to go.

They walked into the freezing darkness together - Linda wearing her church clothes, but without a coat, and the tall dark-haired man carrying a shovel and the shotgun. He took her into the woods near the motel, laid down the shotgun and began digging a hole.

The 3-year-old didn't know what they were doing in the cold, dark woods and didn't much care. She was cold. She was tired. She was hungry. She wanted to go home. So, as cold, tired, hungry 3-year-olds often do, she whined.

The man was silent but apparently got tired of listening to the little girl's pleas. In exasperation he told her, "Sing a song and then you won't be cold."

Linda began to sing the song her mother often sang to her when she was putting her to bed: "Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to Him belong, they are weak, but He is strong ...".

The man cut her off. "Don't sing that song. Sing something else."

So the little girl sang the other song her mother regularly sang at bed time to her: "Oh how I love Jesus, Oh how I love Jesus ..."

As her voice sang out through the darkness, the man stood up, threw his shovel on the ground and took off his jacket. He wrapped the trembling girl in his jacket, took her hand and led her out of the woods. He put her in his green truck and began to drive through the darkness.

As the sun came up a while later, early morning traffic filled the Atlanta streets. Driving through a residential area not far from the governor's mansion, the man stopped his truck next to a park and told Linda to get out and play on the swings.

Behind the truck a woman saw the little girl jump out and head for the park. She had just heard the radio reports of the missing girl and when the truck left, she got out and approached the youngster. She asked the child her name and when she said, "Linda" she knew who she was.

She called the police and they came and took the girl to Grady Hospital where she was reunited with her parents.

It was November 6, 1967.

 

" ... He is strong. "

 

Today Linda Foley Wooten lives in LaGrange. She and her husband, Dan, have a daughter named Beth. Wooten tells her story because she wants people to hear a story of God's love and protection.

"God was present and active in my life even before He became my Savior. I know that without a doubt. I also know his healing and I want other women to know that no matter what has happened, God's healing is there for you," she said.

But Wooten also tells her story to remind people to be alert and to care for the children.

"In 1967 it was unbelievable to think that a child could be abducted from a church. I share this story not to instill fear in those who hear it, but to remind us to wisely take care of the precious ones that God has entrusted to us," she said.

Wooten's church, Western Heights in LaGrange, is one of many Georgia Baptist churches that has developed a comprehensive security system to protect its children that includes background checks on all volunteers.

"You want children to love coming to church. It's got to be a safe place in every way we can make it. When they come here it should be a haven. It should be safe from sexual abuse, physical abuse, and even verbal abuse," said Kevin Stringham, minister to children at the church. (See page 20 for more information on developing a child protection policy in your church.)

Georgia Baptist Convention-sponsored youth and children ministries have also incorporated security measures in recent years.

"Our camps, like Pinnacle and Kaleo, have been running background checks on everyone who is near any children to make sure they are safe people to be around. Our staff has always been conscientious about getting the best qualified workers with integrity and character," said Bobby Boswell, GBC assistant executive director and vice president for ministries.

 

GBC tightens background checks

Last summer, GBC began to run nation-wide background checks on volunteers who work with children or who have the possibility of coming in contact with children. With thousands of volunteers working each year, that's a daunting task.

"We're doing this because we need to do everything we can to protect our children and grandchildren. In today's world we now have the technology that allows us to do this quickly and efficiently," said GBC Executive Director J. Robert White.

Every volunteer must fill out an application that includes name, address and Social Security number. A national background check is run on each volunteer and files are kept at the state convention office in Atlanta.

Most volunteers appreciate the effort.

"A lot of people say, 'It's about time.' They're happy to give us the information because they know it helps protect their children," Boswell said.

One of the first events required to use the application process was the state fair in Perry. About 100 volunteers from nine associations organize and run a baby changing station for families at the 10-day event.

"Most of our volunteers were fine with (the application process), but a few didn't want to give out their Social Security numbers. Only one person said she felt insulted. A lot feel that this is the fault of lawyers and insurance companies, but I told them it's the fault of the people who abuse children," said Clyde Evans, ministry resource consultant in middle Georgia.

Some Georgia Baptists have been opposed to the background checks because of the cost - which can be as much as $100,000 annually.

"Our insurance carrier is requiring us to do this," White explained. "We're not doing it because something has happened to threaten the safety of our children.

"It is costly, but we're talking about our children and what could be more valuable?"

 

Sherri Brown

Linda Wooten, right, sits with her daughter, Beth, at Western Heights Baptist Church in LaGrange. As a child, Linda Wooten was kidnapped from her suburban Atlanta church. Today she is an advocate for security systems and other safety measures in churches.

Linda Foley gazes curiously as newsmen snap her picture after she was found on the morning of Nov. 6, 1967.

DeKalb County Detective C.A. Bone, left, carries Linda Foley from the Grady Hospital emergency room with Atlanta Homicide Det. Lt. Marvin Moon shortly after her discovery. The UPI photo was sent nationwide.

The Nov. 6, 1967 edition of The Atlanta Journal initially chronicled the abduction of 3-year-old Linda Foley from a suburban Atlanta church.

Joe Westbury

Volunteers at a variety of statewide camps and events, such as Camp Kaleo are in constant contact with children. Just as it is important for parents to feel their child is safe, it is equally crucial in the eyes of Baptist leaders to feel secure about those in close proximity of young attendees who are there to learn about Jesus' love and protection.