By Amanda Adams
Church Awareness—Policies to Keep Our Children Safe
Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward. Psalm 127:3
Throughout the Bible, God speaks about the importance of children. It is our job as parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, caregivers and members of congregations to protect our most innocent. Speaking as a parent, it truly takes a village.
The topic of abuse and neglect is difficult. It’s even more difficult when discussing sexually abusive acts committed against children, especially when such acts take place in our beloved Christian institutions. While the subject matter is unpleasant, it is important to discuss so that we can protect our most vulnerable and care for the children and families whose lives are forever changed by abuse and neglect.
According to a study by Christianity Today, 20% of all congregations include at least one convicted sex offender. This percentage is probably an underestimate because most sex offenders are never caught. In a survey of 3,952 male sex offenders, 93% of them described themselves as “religious” or “very religious.”
So why are churches a target for perpetrators? Simply put, easy access. Sex offenders report that churches have the weakest child protection policies, very rarely provide any training on child protection and are extremely easy to fool because Christians are “trusting.” As a result, sex offenders often stay active in church but their victims flee.
Although the prevalence rate varies slightly by study, commonly accepted national statistics tell us that 1 in 7 girls and 1 in 25 boys will be a victim of sexual abuse before their 18th birthday. These statistics make it almost impossible NOT to have at least one victim of abuse in every congregation.
The State of Mississippi has long been in a crisis regarding the protection of children from abuse and neglect. In 2015, there were 6,245 substantiated cases of abuse and neglect. Abuse does not discriminate. It covers every community, every race, and every economic status. Many of these children are walking through the doors of our churches. The outcome of those visits can be dramatically impacted by the trainings and policies churches may or may not have.
Recent research in neuroscience and child development tells us that the trauma children experience when they are victims to physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse damages their ability to mature cognitively and emotionally. These acts scar them well into their adult lives. The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE) found that adverse childhood experiences (including child abuse) are common and that there is a strong link between adverse childhood experiences and adult onset of chronic illness.
The days are gone where we can accept that churches can resolve children’s disclosures “in house.” Not reporting an allegation of abuse only protects the church and the accused perpetrator; it does not protect the child. Children who have endured such heinous acts deserve to have the appropriate treatment in order to begin their long road to healing.
So what can you do? Understanding and accepting these disturbing statistics is the first step. I encourage you to talk to your church leaders and inquire if such policies are in place. Identifying and screening adults who will be working with the children in your congregations, identifying risk factors in families, and prevention efforts are critical for maximizing the prevention of abuse and neglect in your church and in our state.
You are a mandated reporter. Mississippi Law Section 43-21-105 of the Mississippi Code of 1972 states. “Any attorney, physician, dentist, intern, resident, nurse, psychologist, social worker, family protection worker, family protection specialist, child caregiver, minister, law enforcement officer, public or private school employee or any other person having reasonable cause to suspect that a child is a neglected child or an abused child, shall cause an oral report to be made immediately by telephone or otherwise and followed as soon thereafter as possible by a report in writing to the Department of Human Services.” Report anything you know or suspect might be abuse. If you don’t, it’s possible that no one else will.
The week of May 16, the Children’s Advocacy Centers of Mississippi will offer two sessions of a training called Chaplains for Children. We are asking clergy, chaplains, youth ministers, faith leaders, counselors and other members of faith communities to attend.
This course will prepare attendees to recognize and respond to cases of sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse and neglect. We will discuss the prevalence of child abuse, the impact of abuse on spirituality, the interest offenders have in churches and faith-based camps and schools, and will offer suggestions for working to assist a child in coping with maltreatment. The training will also discuss ideal child protection policies for a faith-based institution, including handling a situation in which a convicted sex offender seeks to join a congregation. For more information, please visit http://childadvocacyms.org/events.
There is light at the end of this tunnel. We know having and enforcing policies in our churches will decrease the likelihood of abusive acts among congregations. Families, churches and communities must work diligently to give victims hope that their future will be better and safer.
Amanda Adams is the Special Projects Director for the Children’s Advocacy Centers of MS. www.childadvocacyms.org