God’s desire is for all children to be protected. His angels watch over them, but we know that many types of abuse and neglect happen in homes. There is no class distinction. Rich and poor, well-educated and high school dropouts, the handsome and the plain; no group is immune to child maltreatment.
Children have open hearts and are ready to receive truth and love from those who care for them. Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 18:3) The fact that children have open hearts also means they are vulnerable to those who would hurt or abuse them. April is Child Protection Month. Let’s examine ways our churches can make their best efforts to ensure that kids can be protected from those who may harm them. In this article we will look at how we can protect children and youth in two ways. First, by understanding abuse and neglect and learning how to respond it. Second, by creating environments in homes and in our churches that facilitate the love and nurturing that reflects the heart of God.
Federal law defines child abuse and neglect as “any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation (including sexual abuse), or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.” As people created in the image of a loving Father, our hearts are broken by these acts. It is imperative that we, God’s children, are willing and able to intercede on behalf those who are the most vulnerable among us.
The love of parents toward children seems like the most natural of human responses. God tells us that He is our caring Father who protects and nurtures us. As we are made in His own image, we would hope that that love flows through mothers and fathers to all children. Unfortunately, we know that, as fallen creatures, this is not always true.
There are many reasons why parents fail to nurture their offspring in truth and love. Child neglect often occurs as a result of poverty, mental illness, or addictions that impair parents’ ability to respond to a child’s needs. The causes of child abuse are more complex. Here are a few factors that can lead to physical or emotional abuse:
Some parents who abuse children have been abused themselves or grew up in homes where abuse occurred. That does not mean that every person from an abusive home will become an abuser. Many adults who have had those childhood experiences become advocates for the abused or seek to provide the love and support that was absent in their own homes. Other parents, while never abused, grew up in homes where they never experienced healthy parent-child relationships. As a result, they do not know how to care for their own children.
Depression, anxiety, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are among the many emotional issues that can affect a parent’s ability to respond to children appropriately. Physical illness or injury can also exacerbate issues that can lead to abuse.
Whether it is alcohol, drugs, sex or a number of other problems, addictions can lead parents to harm children, either intentionally or involuntarily.
Unexpected negative events can sometimes lead to abuse. Divorce, unemployment, and financial problems can cause parental stress that clouds judgement that results in harm to children.
Children with exceptional physical or psychological needs can overwhelm parents. Especially if there is not a support system in the extended family, church, or community. Coping with these issues can also pull parents into financial stress, addictions, or emotional problems of their own. These can lead to divorce or an unstable home environment.
There are many other factors contributing to abuse and neglect. While it is essential to recognize that these factors can lead to abuse, we should never assume that an abused person will become an abuser. This is especially true with parents who experienced childhood abuse themselves. Some organizations have labeled those who experience childhood abuse as “potential abusers,” which revictimizes the childhood victim.
God’s desire is for all children to be protected. His angels watch over them, but we know that many types of abuse and neglect happen in homes. There is no class distinction. Rich and poor, well-educated and high school dropouts, the handsome and the plain; no group is immune to child maltreatment. The truth is that most child abuse occurs inside the home of the victim. In the church we must be able to do three things. 1) Recognize the risk factors. 2) Discern the signs. 3) Respond in the best welfare of the child while always seeking to minister to the entire family unit.
Abuse even happens in the church community. The old adage is that church is a “hospital for sinners and not a museum for saints.” We all struggle in different areas and in different ways. Some of the “saints” in our churches struggle with parenting to the point where it becomes abusive or neglectful. Our churches should have open doors. We want to invite people into our congregations who can come to know and follow Jesus. While we need to carefully screen leaders, we open our doors to a wide community of people of whom we sometimes have little, or no, knowledge. The church should not be a private club where we carefully pick those with whom we want to fellowship. Instead, the strong join with the frail: the emotionally healthy with the hurting. We’re all sinners, but we’re also in different stages and capacities of living.
The child may:
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This type of abuse can happen in a variety of settings. While most abuse occurs in homes, all of us have read stories of abuse occurring elsewhere. Places such as schools, scouting, sports, and a variety of other youth activities. As the Church, we need to be able to provide help to the vulnerable children God has allowed to come under our care. Whether that is by keeping our churches safe. Or being able to identify problems when youth have been violated in other settings. The next question to answer is: What do we do when we suspect abuse may have occurred?
I began working with teenagers after college with Youth for Christ on Long Island, NY. I was trained in how to relate to kids, how to share the Gospel, and how to run meetings. But I was totally ignorant of child abuse. While growing up, I knew kids who were “roughed up” by their parents. But, at that time, I did not recognize this as abuse. It didn’t take long for me to be confronted with the reality.
One of the girls in our club told me about abuse from her stepfather. I told her that she needed to get help. I spoke with some other parents in the community, but no one seemed to know what to do or want to get involved. Child Protective Services (CPS) system was only a little over a decade in development. I didn’t know about hotlines and reporting. Little did I realize that I was the one who should have called to get her help.
A couple of years later I began to work with the emerging mentoring division of the ministry, Long Island Youth Mentoring. The ministry focused on youth in high-risk situations. We were working hand-in-hand with CPS to bring faithful Christian adults into the lives of kids who were neglected and abused. Our team also needed to train hundreds of mentors on how to recognize and respond to abuse. We had to make it simple.
First, there is a legal responsibility to report any “reasonable cause” to suspect abuse. A reasonable cause is what any reasonable person would discern from their knowledge of the situation. We asked mentors to contact us first if they suspected abuse. We would get the necessary information. What happened, when it happened, who did the abuse, and how to contact the victim and abuser. Then together we would call CPS to report the incident.
If the child disclosed abuse to the mentor, we asked them to “go to BAT” for the child. BAT is an acronym for:
Trust what the child has told you. Many people are still reluctant to believe a child when they reveal abuse. One reason is that the behavior of some children who are abused, which is a trauma that affects them emotionally and physically, can give adults the impression that their word can’t be trusted.
Another reason can be when the person knows the parents or suspected abuser and finds it hard to believe the person is capable of such an act. While children sometimes, but rarely, lie about abuse, it is absolutely essential that we believe them — even if we have doubts. We need to leave the decision on truthfulness to professionals who are trained to make that type of discernment.
Clearly express your concern for the youth or child. They need to know that you care and will be with there for them (if that is possible), but never promise that you will be able to get them out of the situation. There are no guarantees that reporting the abuse to CPS will make any difference in the short or long run. The only promises you can give is that you will be their support and will tell someone who can provide help.
Report the abuse to the appropriate authority. Volunteers are often intimidated by the process of reporting. We asked them to talk about the issue to us and we could make the best possible report together. We could also do this on the mandated reporter hotline, which often carried more weight than anonymous reporting hotline.
A key position every church needs is that one person or a team that is in charge of handling cases of suspected abuse. That person needs to be trained in reporting the abuse and supporting the child. Everyone in the church should know that this is the person to bring any suspicion or knowledge of abuse. By using the mandated reporter hotline (1-800-4-A-CHILD), this person can also follow up with CPS on the progress of the case.
Here are some objections people will give to reporting abuse:
“Will reporting cause the child to be harmed more by a vengeful parent or caregiver?”
The parent will be contacted by authorities who will investigate the abuse. If they believe the child is in danger, they will remove the child from the home until it is safe to return. If the reported abuse is confirmed and the child remains in the home, their health, and the behavior of the abuser, will be monitored.
“Too often, CPS doesn’t help the situation.”
This is a common refrain throughout the country. CPS staff are overworked and underpaid in one of the toughest jobs in America. They are also limited in what they can do to help. In spite of these problems, they are, at minimum, able to bring resources to the children and parents that would not be there otherwise. In extreme cases, they may even remove the child from the home.
“Will the parents remove the child from our programing after we report?”
The parents aren’t told who made the report by CPS, but they often guess. I’ve reported abuse many times, and the alleged abusers never removed the child from our programs. The reason was mostly due to the fact that I told the person that our agency made the report and why we made that decision. We also stated that we would support the parent and child in any way that they needed help.
Victims of abuse will suffer PTSD, which if untreated, will cause lasting harm to them that can carry on to the next generation. They need professional help along with the enduring support of fellow believers who will uphold them in prayer and support them through the difficult times ahead. While normal church activities can be essential support for them, that is not enough, especially if the leaders are not prepared to appropriately minister to the child. They will need the care of carefully trained and supported mentors who can work in cooperation with the attending health care professionals.
It would be wonderful if kids were always safe in church and no one ever “…causes one of these little ones…to stumble,” but we have all seen or read that this is not the case. So, what can we do to prevent harm from happening? The answer we often hear is “background checks.” While those are important, they may be the least effective step in child safety.
Safety starts with a foundation of prayer and is supported by following basic volunteer management practices. Every successful organization, whether a business, nonprofit, or volunteer organization, knows that they are only as good as the people that are working for them. With this in mind, they carefully select individuals though a process that involves recruiting, screening, training, supervision, and evaluation. Without these basic steps, we cannot be sure that our children will be safe.
“Wait a minute!” I can understand that some people are reacting to this comment by saying, “We trust our people! We know them. They would never hurt a child.” I’ve heard this many times.
It is true that there are people who work tirelessly to minister in the church. They are faithful and wise people who can be trusted. Let me make three observations about these workers:
Let me elaborate on the last point. I’ve seen respected people — pastors, elders, youth leaders, and Sunday school teachers harm kids, most times unintentionally, but too often by design. Unintentional harm can occur when well-meaning leaders hurt kids, usually emotionally or spiritually. This is often because of a lack of knowledge of the scripture, child development, or insight into the needs of individuals placed in their care.
While I’ve heard an overwhelming number of stories of church leaders who positively impacted the lives of youth, I’ve also heard stories from adults who have been scarred due the words and actions of clergy, Sunday School teachers, and youth ministers who were emotionally and spiritually unprepared for their roles. The consequences of these actions have often turned people away from their faith or inhibited their desire to be involved deeply in church.
But there are also people who intentionally harm children. In the 80’s and 90’s, I trained and equipped churches on safe church policies and procedures. Many of these trainings were an “after the fact” response to an abuse that occurred in the church. The protocols that I taught these churches were modeled after the mentoring ministries I’ve worked with for the past four decades which matched children and youth with adults in one-to-one relationships. Mentoring is the highest risk ministry involving kids. When done correctly, it is also one of the safest! Why? The safety is a product of the best practices previously mentioned: recruiting, screening, training, supervision, and evaluation. These are simple tasks that every church can do. They also take hard work, commitment, and consistency.
In the mentoring programs I have worked with or trained that follow these best practices, there has not been one reported accusation of abuse. On the other hand, because we were often working with youth who lived in high-risk families, many children were rescued from abusive or neglectful situations because of the diligence of the volunteer mentors who were trained on how to recognize and respond to problems.
I don’t like to scare people with horror stories, but here are two examples that are instructive.
A head deacon in a fairly large suburban church was well-respected for his work with youth. Everyone trusted him to go on retreats with youth and to counsel both children and young adults. There were some undercurrents of troublesome issues as a couple of youth reported problems, but no one believed them because they trusted their leadership. The dam finally broke as the children grew into adults, went to therapy to heal their trauma, and began to talk to others. It finally came out that this man sexually abused possibly over a hundred boys and girls.
How did the church respond? They finally removed him from leadership and he left the church. Nothing was reported to authorities. I was called in to the situation after one of the victims asked me to intervene because that former deacon was now driving a school bus in the town. In many ways, this story is similar to the scenarios of the Catholic abuse scandal: cover it up and let the abuse happen somewhere else.
This is a more typical story: A youth leader in a smaller rural church was well respected for her tireless commitment and creativity with teenagers. She was somewhat of a “Pied Piper” with the charisma to attract youth who often did not fit into other social circles and the ability to win over the confidence of parents. The youth group was small, but there were a dedicated group of kids who went on retreats, attended small groups, and went to her for individual counseling. She also was sexually involved with her students. An adult discovered the deceit and reported it to the leaders. She was fired, but no reports were made.
The outcomes of these stories would have been much different if the churches knew how to protect children and followed through. The good news is that many churches have put these practices in place.
The Lord watches over us, and we, in turn, are called to watch over others. Evidence-based best practices are a key in this process. How can best practices help avoid abuse? First it starts with how you recruit. Too often, churches are just looking for someone to take on roles that need to be filled, often without diligence in discerning their preparedness for the positions. You will often hear announcements in church of this type: “We need someone to lead middle school Sunday school. We don’t have anyone right now and we need someone quickly.” I’ve seen people start leading programs within a few minutes of an announcement.
Recruiting must be focused. You need to be able to answer these questions: What does the task entail? What skills are needed? Can we adequately train them? What type of person will thrive in the role by bringing the light of Christ and the truth of the Gospel to our kids?
Once you recruit, everyone needs to be screened — everyone — with no exceptions. Before I would engage a congregation in safe church training, I had one prerequisite. The pastors had to be screened first — thoroughly. That meant an application, references, interview, and background check. When the pastor went first, no one else could complain. If the pastor refused, it would be easy to let others slide through the process.
Training is essential. This should be a no brainer. Every good employer starts their staff with training. The church should show the same commitment to excellence as business owners who are trying to build a good name for their companies. What training is needed? It depends on the role, but some things are basic: the mission, vision, and values of the church must be the starting point. Expectations of leadership should follow. Child safety is always on the agenda. This is followed with instruction on how to accomplish the goals of the position. After someone is screened and trained, a team of people should decide whether the person should serve and what position would suit their skills and gifts. An important rule is that a team needs to make this decision. This is not something that should be decided by one person.
All of the above is just preparation for the ministry to start. Supervision and evaluations are the keystones in ensuring quality and safety. These tasks take the most dedication. You can faithfully follow the previous practices and let them mostly go to waste unless there is diligent supervision of the person followed by periodic evaluations. This does not have to be a formal process, but notes should be taken, shared with the leader, and recorded to ensure consistency in supervision and accountability.
What I just described takes much work, but the payoff is enormous. Besides taking appropriate precautions to keep kids safe, you are ensuring excellence in your ministries in a way that will honor the Lord and create an environment where his people can become faithful, life-long disciples. Getting the best people into the right positions builds God’s kingdom.
I know there are still several important obstacles to implementing these best practices. Here are a few:
It can seem overwhelming in both small and large churches. Start by establishing a short-term team who will establish policies and procedures. Some of the resources are free online: applications and references. Sample interview questions are also available online, but these need to be edited to fit your church culture, goals, and community. There are many background check options available. There are also online services that you help you streamline and organize the process.
Replace “third graders” with whatever hole there is in your team at any moment. The short answer to the desperation issue is to let them sit with their parents until a qualified person is available. The long answer is to carefully build the systems in place where you not only have the right people in roles, you also have succession plans so that everyone has backup for the short run, “our high school teachers are sick today,” and the long run, “our child care coordinator is moving out of town next month.”
One of the tasks of short-term team is to find someone who can manage the process along with someone who can assist and eventually fill that role. The hard fact is that every church needs a “Human Resources” department: someone to manage the volunteer process. This is often the youth or associate pastor’s responsibility. One other payoff is that with a well-run process, you will more likely have qualified people and avoid the “desperation.”
In my work with the Christian Association of Youth Mentoring, we have taken many churches and nonprofits through the steps of implementing best practices for safe, effective, and sustainable mentoring. Some churches and organizations have taken these principles and applied them to every other area of church ministry whether that is adult ministries, church maintenance, or elder care. These basic practices are applicable in every ministry and have the ability to improve the quality and efficiency of your work.
The final topic to cover is ministering to the abuser. While the first priority is to care for the victim, the abuser, whether it is a family member or someone else, also needs ministry. If they are willing to receive it, the church can bring healing to the parent which will ultimately provide a heathier home for the child. In any type of abuse, the parent will become a pariah in the community. The church needs to be able restore that person in a way that changes their behavior and ignites a faith and walk with Christ.
How can you safely involve a perpetrator in church life? This is not easy, especially in the case of sexual abuse which can carry a stigma on both victim and perpetrator. One key is that a person who has committed abuse can never have access to children. God will forgive and forget, but there are consequences to these behaviors. A general rule for ministry is that if a person has victimized a child, disabled person, or the elderly — they are forbidden from any access or involvement with children or any other vulnerable person.
There are very rare, but real, scenarios where an innocent person is accused of abuse. Once the accusation has been made, the stigma can linger even after being cleared. The church should take steps in slowly restoring this person’s standing in the congregation so others in the church can recognize the injustice.
One evening I met with a couple of high school football buddies from Brooklyn. I hadn’t seen Tom (not his real name) in over three decades. I intentionally avoided him not long after high school because he had become increasingly belligerent — continually starting fights with random people in any setting. Tom already had a few drinks when I arrived. He had checked me out online and discovered I worked in a ministry, which was a big change from my youth and which he not-so-gently mocked. What a great way to start a reunion!
Both of my old friends asked me about my dad, who had been one of our coaches and was a big influence on their lives. Tom told me his father died recently. After I expressed my condolences, he said something that changed my view of him forever as he described how he desecrated his father’s grave. For the next hour Tom explained the horrors of growing up with a father who beat his wife and children incessantly. The abuse finally ended when he grew big enough to beat up his father.
All Tom’s drinking, violence, and inability to sustain relationships (a couple of divorces and estrangement from children) made sense in that moment. He then said that a clergyman witnessed the abuse and did not take one step to intervene or provide help for the family. Tom scoffed at my faith for good reason. A key person who represented Christ to him failed Tom and his family at their most vulnerable moment.
Abuse and neglect are all too common and easy to miss, as I did in my younger years. As believers and followers of Christ we can bring healing into a broken world by first protecting those whom God entrusts into our care and responding to abuse in a way that brings hope into hurting lives.