Keeping children safe from abuse and neglect
Children are a delight. They make us smile. They bring new life to us unlike any other source. Children are also a great responsibility. They are unbelievably vulnerable and sometimes lacking in common sense. They need us to protect them and provide their most basic and constant needs for food, shelter, clothing and safety—day in and day out, for many, many years.
Sadly, scores of children are hurt every day by those responsible to care for them. Some children are even killed by the people closest to them. Through abuse and neglect, the light in these children’s eyes is fading. They are giving up on the hope that someone will ever love them in a way that doesn’t hurt. They need us to protect them, value them and give them life again.
As recorded in Matthew 22:37-39, Jesus commands us to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” He goes on to command us to “love your neighbor as yourself.” The children in our families, our churches and the communities where we live and work are our neighbors. We must do all we can to keep children safe and provide them what they need to grow and thrive.
Child abuse: a real problem
Child abuse and neglect is a problem of vast proportions. In the United States in 2007, 3.2 million reports were made to Child Protective Services (CPS), involving 5.8 million children as alleged victims of child abuse and neglect. Nearly two-thirds (59 percent) of these reports were for some type of neglect. The remainder were for physical abuse (11 percent), sexual abuse (8 percent), emotional abuse (4 percent) and other types of abuse or neglect (16 percent). Even more alarming is the large number of children being abused or neglected in which the situation is never reported and safety and help are not provided. These children are out of the reach of protection, and their families are not being given the services they need to provide a safe and healthy environment for these children.
It is important to teach our children about “stranger danger,” but it is also important for us to realize that more children are hurt by their caretakers or other people they know and trust. According to CPS records in 2007, nearly 80 percent of perpetrators of abuse were the parents of the victim(s). And of the parental perpetrators, nearly all (88 percent) were the biological parents, and 7 percent were other relatives. We must work to make our families a safe place for children.
Child abuse and neglect has dire consequences for the child, family, church and society. The child victim suffers physically, emotionally, behaviorally and spiritually. The family is affected forever. If involved, the church reels from what has happened and must consider its role. And society pays in many ways and through many systems: child welfare, police, legal, health care, mental health.
Here are some of the ways children suffer from abuse and suggestions for how we can respond:
Physical neglect involves the failure of a caretaker to provide necessary food or shelter or appropriate supervision. A neglected child may be chronically hungry, dressed inappropriately and/or often dirty or sick. Neglectful supervision puts many children at risk every day. The law does not stipulate a specific age when a child can be left alone because of many factors: maturity of child, safety of the home and neighborhood, other children in the home.
What can we do? We must work to understand the underlying causes for neglect in a family and be creative, flexible and respectful in our responses to the family. We can fight poverty in big and small ways. We can make donations to food and clothing pantries and day-care programs. We can provide education to parents on literacy, nutrition and child development.
Emotional abuse of children
Emotional abuse scars the hearts and minds of our children in ways not easily healed. Emotional abuse may be comprised of continual scapegoating, rejection or exposure to violence by a child’s parent or caretaker. When this is the pattern, a child’s ability to form healthy relationships with God, self and others is impaired.
How can we protect children from emotional abuse? Whether we are drinking coffee during fellowship time, disagreeing at a business meeting or shingling a roof, we must choose to use words that are uplifting and pleasing to God. Other people, old and young alike, are listening to us and learning from our behavior.
Physical abuse of children
The minimum standards set by federal legislation for physical abuse are these: “Physical injury (ranging from minor bruises to severe fractures or death) as a result of punching, beating, kicking, biting, shaking, throwing, stabbing, choking, hitting (with a hand, stick, strap or other object), burning or otherwise harming a child. Such injury is considered abuse regardless of whether the caretaker intended to hurt the child.”
Physical abuse may have occurred if a child’s injury is unexplained, not consistent with the explanation given or is nonaccidental. Knowing child development is important when considering whether or not a child’s injury is accidental.
One type of physical abuse is Shaken Baby Syndrome. When you mix a crying baby with a tired or frustrated parent or an adult who is unfamiliar with the care of the child, the child is at risk for being shaken. Shaken Baby Syndrome occurs when the caretaker picks up and shakes a baby to silence the cries. This is not a light or playful jiggle but a violent thrusting that causes the baby’s head to be thrown back and forth. The baby’s immature brain sloshes around in the skull and receives serious bruising. The brain swells. The retina of the baby’s eye may hemorrhage or become detached. The baby often suffers bruises and skeletal injuries as a result of the harsh handling. Many of these shaken babies die.
Children need to know that the church in their neighborhood cares about them, that their neighbor wants to play basketball and develop a friendship with them. Parents need to know that the church in their neighborhood is ready and able to help them. Remember: If you see any mark on a child that is unexplained, report it to CPS or the police as soon as possible.
Sexual abuse of children
Sexual abuse can be defined as “any act occurring between people who are at different developmental stages that is for the sexual gratification of the person at the more advanced developmental stage.” Sexual abuse can and is happening in our families and churches. We must stop it. As churches, parents and caretakers, we must be sensitive to what children are trying to tell us and respond with calmness and compassion. A child’s outcry will be couched in a child’s vocabulary and style, which may mean it is revealed in behavior, a drawing, a letter or in spoken words. Unless we are professionals in child abuse, we should not probe the child for details. Children are easily led by our questions and will react to our emotions. Additionally, when we ask a child to tell his or her story over and over to different people, we are not only contaminating the story but also revictimizing the child.
The church is not equipped to handle the complex nature of sexual abuse but must join in partnership with local professionals who can assist in keeping the child safe, gathering evidence and bringing hope and restoration to the child and nonoffending family members.
The church’s role
Child abuse and neglect is such a huge and complex problem that no one entity can be held responsible for ending this tragedy. The government does play an important role in investigating reports of abuse, in providing services, administering out-of-home care for victims and prosecuting offenders. However, the government does not make a good parent and does not have ears and eyes in every home and neighborhood or abundant resources to do all we hope theyll do.
We as Christians and faith communities must acknowledge our vital role in ending the tragedy of child abuse and neglect. When we read the Scriptures through the lens of child abuse and neglect, we can learn many things about God’s hopes for us in strengthening families and protecting children from abuse and neglect. We find stories of Jesus blessing and taking time for children. We find parents valuing and protecting their children. We find instructions for healthy family relationships. Overarching all this, we find the importance of family and family relationships.
On one hand, we need to protect the children in our church from someone who may hurt them with their words or actions. On the other hand, and relevant for our churches today, we must protect the children in our church from pain they may experience from our inaction. For whatever reason, many churches are not taking the steps they should to protect the children. Whether this inaction is intentional or not doesn’t matter to the child who becomes a victim. We must not hesitate. We must do all we can today to keep the children in our communities safe.
“Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, anyone whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it” (Luke 18:16b-17).
For more information on the Dove’s Nest Collaborative: Mennonites Keeping Children Safe, go to www.dovesnest.net.