How should I respond to the discovery that an adult member of the extended family of a friend has been forcing one of the children to engage in sexual acts with him? I don't want to intrude in other people's business, but now that I'm in possession of this information I feel responsible to do something about it. Do you have any recommendations?
If you know that a child is being abused, you must report the incident to the police and the Department of Social Services. Keeping a secret like this will only make matters worse. As you probably know, situations of this kind are often covered up for years. When that happens, the victim usually ends up carrying a heavy burden of shame, guilt, and damaged self-esteem into adulthood. As a result, what might have been an isolated incident sometimes becomes a trans-generational "curse."
Depending on the reliability of the information you've received, you could be in a position to break a long chain of tragic events. By taking firm, appropriate action, you may even be able to prevent future incidents of abuse. It's in the best interests of all concerned that the truth should be brought to light as soon as possible.
Ideally, it would be best if you could do this in conjunction with the child's parents and with their full cooperation. We realize that this isn't always possible. Sometimes the parents are negligent, abusive, or uninvolved. Sometimes one of them is the perpetrator or has knowledge of the situation and has failed to protect the victim. In that case, you may want to find someone else you can trust with the details of the story before taking any decisive step: a teacher, a school counselor, a pastor, a youth leader, or the parent of a friend. Be aware that, in certain cases, talking to the parents could actually make things worse for the child.
Once you have a trusted ally, look for an opportunity to sit down and broach the issue with the victim. Make every effort to discuss it in a sensitive and caring way. Let her know that you're on her side. Ask questions designed to draw out the details as gently and gradually as possible. Say things like, "I can't tell you how deeply it hurts me to know that this has been happening to you. Who has been doing this to you? For how long? Is it an ongoing situation?"
If and when you become convinced that the authorities need to be informed, be aware that you can make the report confidentially. It's important to understand precisely what this means. At the time of making the call, you will need to give your name, but the police or Child Protection Services agency won't reveal it to the parents or family of the victim without your permission. For additional guidance, we suggest you contact the National Organization for Victim Assistance (NOVA) 24-hour crisis hotline at 1-800-879-6682.
Don't hesitate to give Focus on the Family's Counseling department a call if you think it might be helpful to discuss this situation with a member of our staff. We can provide you with a list of professional therapists practicing in your area, and our trained Christian counselors would be more than happy to discuss your situation with you over the phone.