Safe Environment Training
The mission of the Safe Environment Training Office is to prevent sexual, physical or emotional abuse and/or neglect of children and young people through continued education, building awareness, and maintaining a commitment to keeping all children and young people safe.
The new coordinator for the Phoenix Diocese’s Safe Environment Training Office, Maria Escárcega, is a native of Arizona, is fluent in Spanish and has a background in the field of mental and behavioral health.
In her role at the diocese which began in October, Escárcega is responsible for making sure every volunteer and every employee of the Diocese of Phoenix has undergone Safe Environment Training. A foundational course comes first, followed by an annual update.
“We are trained to work together to make sure that we can all work safely together and correctly together and care for each other as brothers and sisters in Christ,” Escárcega said.
The eldest of five children, Escárcega attended Catholic schools in the diocese. She also spent some of her earlier years being homeschooled by her mom and says her parents are a huge source of inspiration.
“It sounds kind of cheesy but it’s true,” said Escárcega, a St. Joan of Arc parishioner. “Their hard work and devotion to Natural Family Planning, being an active part of the Church, praying the Rosary outside of abortion clinics, the pro-life movement — I think they fueled that fire in me and in many of my family members.
Escárcega said she looks back on her childhood and now appreciates even more what her parents did — including the times they cut things out of her life or did things she didn’t fully understand at the time. “God was protecting His children through my parents,” she said, and she now sees the connection to her current work in the Phoenix Diocese, protecting children.
With a psychology degree from Arizona State University, Escárcega spent six years working with people struggling through acute mental and behavioral issues before she came to the diocese.
“She comes to the diocese with much experience in the field of helping children and families get the appropriate services that they need and keep them safe. Maria is solid in her faith and she will bring a lot to offer in our safe environment program,” said Dr. Anne Leveriza-Vargas, director of the diocese’s Office of Child and Youth Protection.
As a case manager, she was responsible for 200 children from families under the care of Arizona’s Department of Child Safety. From abuse to neglect and trauma, the work was intense. Later on, she managed a team of case workers.
This background, she said, was good preparation for her current role as coordinator of SET for the Phoenix Diocese. So was the growth she experienced through the Tepeyac Leadership Initiative, a five-month program that develops Catholic leaders in the diocese. Escárcega said TLI taught her that “leadership is about virtue” and that “God calls us each of us to greatness in all that we do.”
As coordinator of SET, Escárcega is responsible for “making sure that every volunteer and every person is a part of the Catholic community. We together are here to build a healthy and good community and that includes taking care of vulnerable children, children [of all ages], refugees and the elderly.”
“Maria will bring her experience, knowledge and love for the children of God to us and help us know the best ways or best practices to keep these children safe,” said Vargas-Leveriza.