Step Eight: Create guidelines for responding to abuse
Learning that a child has been abused while in the church’s care is a stressful situation, making good decisions more difficult to make. Churches with pre-established protocols have a road map to follow. This ensures that the response to abuse follows local laws, gets documented, and is survivor centered.
Research your state’s laws about mandated reporting to find out the definition of abuse for your state and when and how to report. State legislation will provide the timeframe for reporting, acceptable method (oral or written), and the authority to contact. All people, whether mandated or not, may make a child abuse report. Freedom for the Captives encourages churches to require all its volunteers and staff to make these reports.
When a Child Discloses Abuse
When a child discloses abuse, how we respond can make all the difference in the life of a child. When listening to the disclosure:
- Take the child seriously. Do not suggest the story is not true or that the child misunderstood what happened.
- Stay calm and reassuring. Your demeanor should be one of gentle comfort. Do not express emotions like surprise or disgust. This will make the child feel they are in the wrong, and they may stop talking.
- Do NOT promise to not tell anyone. Rather, tell the child that you will tell others who will know how to help and keep the child safe.
- Reassure the child that you are glad they talked to you. They need to know that it’s good that they told someone. Their abuser most likely warned them not to tell.
- Let the child know that what happened was not their fault.
- Remind the child of God’s love for them and that they did not deserve to be hurt by anyone.
- Do not investigate. Do not ask the child questions. This is a job best left for professionals who know how to properly work with children on this sensitive topic. Asking leading questions or investigating on your own could compromise a criminal or legal process.
- Write down the information you heard as soon as possible. This will preserve the disclosure made to you.
- Pray with the child if you feel it is appropriate and keep the family in your private prayers.
Actions after disclosure
The church must take immediate action following an allegation, report, or disclosure of child abuse is made. This includes acting when a suspicion is raised about an individual who is involved in the church in some way.
- Take steps to ensure that the child will not encounter the alleged perpetrator.
- Contact the parents/guardians about the disclosure unless the child identifies the parent/guardian as the perpetrator of the abuse.
- Contact the appropriate authorities (this may be child protection services, department of human services, law enforcement and more. Consult your state’s legislation) and report the abuse. If you’re not sure if what you heard is reportable, call the appropriate authorities and tell them what you heard or saw that makes you suspect abuse and/or neglect. Then ask if you need to report it. They will let you know what needs to be done.
Reporting abuse to the authorities is a loving thing to do for both the survivor and the abuser. The survivor gets the necessary help and protection needed. The abuser is held accountable for their sin, giving them a chance to reflect on what they did and repent. It may also prevent future abuse to other youth.
If the alleged perpetrator is a staff member, further internal investigation is needed to determine the actions needed, which may include training, counseling, disciplinary proceedings, additional supervision, being dismissed, or no change in their ministry. Consult with qualified human resource departments or legal counsel for assistance.
Above all else, pray for the child who disclosed abuse and their family. Pray for the alleged perpetrator. Pray that God grants wisdom in this matter and that his will is done. This situation is one of the most difficult to navigate. By developing a protocol for response, you will have a clear guide to the steps you need to take.