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Keeping Children/Youth Safe From Abuse In Church: Best Practices


In our last post we looked at what faith communities need to know and think about regarding sexual abuse. In this post we will look at very specific behaviors churches/ministries can take to reduce the actual risk of sexual abuse occurring in their buildings and programs.

  • Do the hard work of developing policies

Many churches or youth and children ministries already have policies on how to address abuse when it occurs. It would be prudent to develop an abuse prevention policy as well. For example, have a 2-1 adult-child ratio at all times would be a safer practice that allowing 1-on-1 adult to child ratio. If a child needs spiritual counseling or is in a mentoring relationship with an adult, restricting physical touch to only public spaces or simply minimizing (side hug vs. full frontal, prolonged hug) is also a best practice.

  • Identify and question confusing behaviors

This will take an environmental curator, who is skilled at communication, to shape the culture and make it safe and acceptable to talk about confusing or uncomfortable behaviors. Nobody wants to accuse someone of sexual abuse but having a climate that identifies behavior that could potentially be misconstrued as inappropriate is a good starting point.

  • Don’t wait! Address inappropriate behaviors

Speaking up about your concerns is not the same as accusing someone of sexual abuse and could serve to keep unhealthy or dangerous behaviors from occurring in the first place. The very nature of prevention is to act before the illegal sexual behavior occurs. Drawing a boundary of safe and appropriate behavior early is the important work of prevention. Don’t wait until the line is crossed, be proactive.

  • No hide and seek

When planning for child/youth space, we often look at it through the lens of the child or physical harm to the child. We should also be looking at our physical spaces through the lens of a potential perpetrator; where are there blind spots, hiding spaces where abuse might occur. Be mindful of the activities you play, such as; hide and seek, sardines, etc. Consider adding windows to interior walls for safer viewing and higher levels of accountability.

  • Plan for messy people

The church is and should be a place of restoration and reconciliation. People who have sexually abuse others in the past often look to faith and religion as a means of overcoming their problem. What are your protocol for how they can navigate your community? Are certain areas off limits? What legal restrictions do they have? Who is meeting with the abuser for counseling and accountability? Thinking this through ahead of time will give you the opportunity to be proactive and decrease the likelihood of unwanted difficulties.

 

In our next post we will look at best practices for responding to a sexual abuse crisis should it happen in your church/program.

Legal Issues For The Church Dealing With Child/Youth Abuse


Limits of Confidentiality/Legal Issues/Mandated Reporting

Everything that happens in therapy is strictly confidential and protected under the law. Your therapist cannot discuss anything about your therapy, or even identify that you are a client, unless you give your written permission. There are some instances when a therapist will talk with someone about your case without obtaining your consent that is allowed under the law. These include reviewing your case during Clinical Supervision or Peer Consultation, sharing required information with your health insurance, discussing your case with other mental health or healthcare providers to collaborate services provided to you.

There are some instances in which a therapist is required to break confidentiality under the law. These apply to those in ministry serving youth. They include:

Mandated Reporting Laws

Child Abuse – includes physical or sexual abuse, neglect, excessive corporal punishment, child abduction and exposure to domestic violence that is traumatizing to the child. Child abuse reporting only applies to children who are currently under the age of 18. Abuse that happened in your childhood prior to becoming an adult is not reportable unless there is a child who is currently in danger of being abused. The reporter is required to report suspected child abuse in addition to known incidents of abuse. Child abuse is reported to the Department of Children and Family Services who will investigate the abuse allegations.

Spend time with your staff and volunteers exploring what each form of abuse looks like and what your policy/procedures are for addressing it. (i.e., neglect – being left at home at a young age without adequate food available for long periods of time.)

Dependent Adult/Elder Abuse – includes physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, abduction, financial abuse, self-neglect, isolating the adult and not providing proper care, including medical and mental health needs. Again, the reporter is required to report suspected abuse in addition to know abuse.

Intent to Harm Yourself or Others

If anyone discloses the intention or a plan to harm another person, you are legally required to warn the intended victim and report this information to legal authorities. If they discloses or imply that they have  plan for to harm or kill themself, you, as a mandated reported, are required by law to take precautions to keep them safe, which includes contacting a family member or friend to watch over them for a specified amount of time, a referral to a psychiatric hospital or police intervention if necessary.

 

Contact your local child protective services to ask about state specific requirements and training.

Myths About Child Abuse


Myths of Abuse

Child abuse is more than bruises or broken bones. While physical abuse is shocking due to the scars it leaves, not all child abuse is as obvious. Ignoring children’s needs, putting them in unsupervised, dangerous situations, or making a child feel worthless or stupid are also child abuse. Regardless of the type of child abuse, the result is serious emotional harm.

MYTH #1: It’s only abuse if it’s violent.

Fact: Physical abuse is just one type of child abuse. Neglect and emotional abuse can be just as damaging, and since they are more subtle, others are less likely to intervene. .

MYTH #2: Only bad people abuse their children.

Fact: While it’s easy to say that only “bad people” abuse their children, it’s not always so black and white. Not all abusers are intentionally harming their children. Many have been victims of abuse themselves, and don’t know any other way to parent. Others may be struggling with mental health issues or a substance abuse problem.

MYTH #3: Child abuse doesn’t happen in “good” families.

Fact: Child abuse doesn’t only happen in poor families or bad neighborhoods. It crosses all racial, economic, and cultural lines. Sometimes, families who seem to have it all from the outside are hiding a different story behind closed doors.

MYTH #4: Most child abusers are strangers.

Fact: While abuse by strangers does happen, most abusers are family members or others close to the family

MYTH #5: Abused children always grow up to be abusers.

Fact: It is true that abused children are more likely to repeat the cycle as adults, unconsciously repeating what they experienced as children. On the other hand, many adult survivors of child abuse have a strong motivation to protect their children against what they went through and become excellent parents.

MYTH #6: Children/Youth somehow played a role in the abuse.

Fact: Regardless of age, victims of abuse are just that, victims. Victim-shaming is a practice of blaming the victim for the actions of the abuser. Children of young ages do not have the ability to defend themselves from an abuser. Adolescents, while often times oppositional, are still protected as minors and therefore not able to defend themselves against the attacks of an abuser. They lack resources to defend or protect themselves and are protected by the law because of this.

Abuse Defined


If we’re going to dig into this messy and difficult topic then we’re going to need to define what abuse is and identify the different types of abuse a child/young person can experience.

Abuse Defined

Child abuse and neglect are defined by Federal and State laws. The Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) provides minimum standards that States must incorporate in their statutory definitions of child abuse and neglect. The CAPTA definition of “child abuse and neglect,” at a minimum, refers to:

  • “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, or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm”

The CAPTA definition of “sexual abuse” includes:

  • “The employment, use, persuasion, inducement, enticement, or coercion of any child to engage in, or assist any other person to engage in, any sexually explicit conduct or simulation of such conduct for the purpose of producing a visual depiction of such conduct; or
  • The rape, and in cases of caretaker or interfamilial relationships, statutory rape, molestation, prostitution, or other form of sexual exploitation of children, or incest with children”

Types of Abuse

Nearly all States, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands provide civil definitions of child abuse and neglect in statute. As applied to reporting statutes, these definitions determine the grounds for intervention by State child protective agencies. States recognize the different types of abuse in their definitions, including physical abuse, neglect, sexual abuse, and emotional abuse. Some States also provide definitions in statute for parental substance abuse and/or for abandonment as child abuse.

Physical Abuse

Physical abuse is generally defined as “any non-accidental physical injury to the child” and can include striking, kicking, burning, or biting the child, or any action that results in a physical impairment of the child. In approximately 38 States and American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, the definition of abuse also includes acts or circumstances that threaten the child with harm or create a substantial risk of harm to the child’s health or welfare.

Neglect

Neglect is frequently defined as the failure of a parent or other person with responsibility for the child to provide needed food, clothing, shelter, medical care, or supervision such that the child’s health, safety, and well-being are threatened with harm. Approximately 24 States, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands include failure to educate the child as required by law in their definition of neglect. Seven States specifically define medical neglect as failing to provide any special medical treatment or mental health care needed by the child. In addition, four States define as medical neglect the withholding of medical treatment or nutrition from disabled infants with life-threatening conditions.

Sexual Abuse/Exploitation

All States include sexual abuse in their definitions of child abuse. Some States refer in general terms to sexual abuse, while others specify various acts as sexual abuse. Sexual exploitation is an element of the definition of sexual abuse in most jurisdictions. Sexual exploitation includes allowing the child to engage in prostitution or in the production of child pornography.

Emotional Abuse

Almost all States, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands include emotional maltreatment as part of their definitions of abuse or neglect. Approximately 32 States, the District of Columbia, the Northern Mariana Islands, and Puerto Rico provide specific definitions of emotional abuse or mental injury to a child. Typical language used in these definitions is “injury to the psychological capacity or emotional stability of the child as evidenced by an observable or substantial change in behavior, emotional response, or cognition,” or as evidenced by “anxiety, depression, withdrawal, or aggressive behavior.”

Parental Substance Abuse

Parental substance abuse is an element of the definition of child abuse or neglect in some States. Circumstances that are considered abuse or neglect in some States include:

  • Prenatal exposure of a child to harm due to the mother’s use of an illegal drug or other substance (14 States and the District of Columbia)
  • Manufacture of a controlled substance in the presence of a child or on the premises occupied by a child (10 States)
  • Allowing a child to be present where the chemicals or equipment for the manufacture of controlled substances are used or stored (three States)
  • Selling, distributing, or giving drugs or alcohol to a child (seven States and Guam)
  • Use of a controlled substance by a caregiver that impairs the caregiver’s ability to adequately care for the child (seven States)

Abandonment

Approximately 17 States and the District of Columbia include abandonment in their definition of abuse or neglect, generally as a type of neglect. Approximately 18 States, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands provide definitions for abandonment that are separate from the definition of neglect. In general, it is considered abandonment of the child when the parent’s identity or whereabouts are unknown, the child has been left by the parent in circumstances in which the child suffers serious harm, or the parent has failed to maintain contact with the child or to provide reasonable support for a specified period of time.

Protecting Against Sexual Abuse in Youth Programs


6 Stages of Child Grooming

Wikipedia defines Child Grooming as befriending and establishing an emotional connection with a child, and sometimes the family, to lower the child’s inhibitions for child sexual abuse. It lures minors into trafficking of children, illicit businesses such as child prostitution, or the production of child pornography.

Child groomers are often drawn into roles such as youth ministry or other positions where they have access to children and youth like teachers, coaches, mentors, etc.

A child groomer is often methodical in their strategy and the grooming process can happen quickly, depending on the response from the child, or over a number of years. It can happen in person, online, or a combination of both. Most offenders are someone the youth and family know and have a measure of trust.

There are 6 common stages of grooming and it is important to be aware of for those of us who work with children and youth.

 

Stage 1: Initial Contact: If an abuser does not already have access to a child they will often target children that are unaware of sexual abuse, are shy, insecure, or children considered ‘weird’ or ‘needy’. They want: access, trust, and ability to control.  Often children with a single parent, or children with busy or inattentive parents are targeted and are increased risk of grooming. The reason for this is that there is a perceived likelihood that the child/youth will desire the attention and affection of an adult because of the deficiency in their primary relationships.

Points of contact include:

  • Church/youth group
  • School
  • Shopping Mall
  • Movie theater
  • Bus/train stations
  • Athletic activities/events
  • Parks
  • Anywhere a child/youth might gather with minimal direct supervision

Stage 2: Gaining Trust: The sex offender gains trust by watching and gathering information about the child, getting to know his or her needs and how to fill them. In this regard, sex offenders mix effortlessly with responsible caretakers because they generate warm and calibrated attention. Often, offenders fly under the radar in youth oriented programs because, on the surface, they look like and act like the ideal staff/volunteer.

Stage 3: Befriending the Victim: Once the individual groomer begins to meet the emotional/relational needs of the child, that adult may assume noticeably more importance in the child’s life and may become idealized. Often gifts, extra attention and affection may be a red flag for one adult in particular and they should be monitored closely at this point.

Stage 4: Isolating the Child: The grooming sex offender uses the developing special relationship with the child to create situations in which they are alone together. This private, one-on-one time further reinforces a special connection. Babysitting, tutoring, coaching and special trips all enable this isolation. A special relationship can be even more reinforced when an offender cultivates a sense in the child that he is loved or appreciated in a way that others, not even parents, provide. Parents may unwittingly feed into this through their own appreciation for the unique relationship; grateful that their child has someone in their life that understands and cares for them. Parents can be manipulated into thinking this individual is a conduit for the parent to understand their own strained relationship with their child.

Stage 5: Sexualizing the Relationship: Once there is sufficient emotional dependence and trust, the offender progressively sexualizes the relationship. Desensitization occurs through talking, pictures, even creating situations hugging more frequently and for longer periods of time. At that point, the adult exploits a child’s natural curiosity, using feelings of stimulation to advance the sexuality of the relationship. When conditioning a child, the grooming sex offender has the opportunity to shape the child’s sexual preferences and can manipulate what a child finds exciting and extend the relationship in this way. The child comes to see himself as a more sexual being and to define the relationship with the offender in more sexual and special terms. For a child who has yet to reach identity achievement, sexualization like this can disrupt and distort that natural process.

Stage 6: Maintaining Control: Once the sex abuse is occurring, offenders commonly use secrecy and blame to keep the child in continued participation and silence—particularly because the sexual activity may cause the child to withdraw from the relationship. Children in these entangled relationships—and at this point they are entangled—confront threats to blame them, to end the relationship and to end the emotional and material needs they associate with the relationship, whether it be the money, the coaching one receives, special outings or other gifts. The groomer creates a system of rewards for the behavior and the loss of those rewards becomes the consequences for ending the relationship. The child may also feel that the loss of the relationship and the consequences of exposing it will humiliate and render them even more unwanted by the offender, family, and friends.

 

Grooming for sexual exploitation purposes is a complex and effective strategy that we must be vigilant about. If you work with youth in any capacity, you are charged with protecting these precious children. Blaming them for the abuse will only render them more vulnerable to future attacks because it will further marginalize them from protective factors.

In our next post we will explore our response should we suspect grooming/sexual abuse is occurring and how we can work to prevent it in the first place.

Building Bridges (pt. 3 – LGBTQ-Related Stress)


In the third part of our series on LGBTQ themes, our research/interviews revealed to us that there are extra layers of stress for LGBTQ students compared to their non-LGBTQ peers.

Growing up as a teen in today’s fast paced culture is hard enough as it is. To compound those struggles with stressors related directly to being an individual that identifies as LGBTQ can be overwhelming. So what are “normal stressors” all you are at risk for experiencing? Let’s take a quick look:

  • puberty/physical changes/body image issues
  • peer comparison
  • performance anxiety (school, athletics, roles at home, church, etc.)
  • pressures to engage in high-risk behaviors, such as; drug use, drinking, and sexual activity
  • academic stressors/college prep/career planning
  • family life/expectations (child care of younger siblings, household chores, etc.)
  • challenges related to managing emotions
  • onslaught of negative messages (self/family, peers, media, culture) and filtering them

Now let’s take a look at specific stressors identified by LGBTQ teens related to being LGBTQ:

  • internal/external homophobia
  • bullying/assault/death
  • stigma
  • social isolation/alienation/minority stress
  • academic struggles due to not feeling safe at school
  • higher risk of depression, self harm,, substance abuse, and suicide
  • fear of or actual rejection from family and friends
  • misconceptions by public related to what it means to be LGBTQ
  • pressure (internal or external) to suppress sexual identity/gender identity
  • incongruent identity
  • intersections, such as; disability, race, gender, gender norms, religious background/beliefs

These lists are probably incomplete but it gives you a clearer picture of what the average LGBTQ student is likely to deal with on any given day. High levels of relentless stress contribute to feeling hopeless and helpless, which is a precursor to suicidal ideation. This alone sets apart LGBTQ youth from their non-LGBTQ peers. This also contributes directly to further alienation and isolation. Regardless of your faith tradition and its respective doctrine about the issue of homosexuality, this kind of collateral damage to God’s beloved children cannot be acceptable to anyone calling themselves followers in the way of Jesus.

So, what might be a better way of engagement?

Building Bridges (part 2 – acceptance/rejection and coming out)


“I was born a female but identify with the male gender. My sexual identity is gay. I am 16 years old and was kicked out of my home recently. Sometimes I think killing myself would save everyone a lot of trouble. I don’t know what else to do or where to go. There is no place that I know of that will accept me as I am. I never wanted this. It’s not like I want to be hated by everyone and all alone. I’m basically on my own now.” – Homeless transgendered teen

In an attempt to better understand the lives of young LGBTQ students I interviewed several teens looking for common themes related to the topics of rejection/acceptance, coming out, LGBTQ-related stress, other intersections of identity, trauma/bullying, mental health/substance use, suicide, community/sense of belonging, and faith and spirituality. What I discovered has changed me and I don’t think I will ever be the same and I’m hoping it will change how the church engages these precious and beloved children of God as well.

During the course of one interview, the student I was talking with used the term “straight privilege”. It stopped me in my tracks. It wasn’t something I’d ever considered, let alone heard of. Those with privilege rarely do consider it. I mean, come on. I get white privilege or male privilege, but straight privilege? How much privilege could one man have? I quickly learned that the world I lived in lent itself to being straight. I have never experienced the stress of coming out or being rejected because I liked the opposite sex. The term “Hetero” has never been used as a derogatory term. Nobody shouts, “Look at that dude, he looks so straight!” or “That shirt is so straight. He must like girls.” I have never had to wonder if me being heterosexual was pleasing to God or if I was damned to hell because I was attracted to the opposite sex. I learned through these interviews that I am biased because of straight privilege and it was preventing me from seeing the world through the eyes of an LGBTQ individual.

Rejection/Acceptance

All of the students interviewed had a sense they were different at a very early age, some reporting as early as 7 or 8 years old. Most had a definitive awareness by 10 – 13 years of age. Most report initially rejecting the notion that they had same-sex attraction and many said they were repulsed by the idea. One teenage boy, who identifies as gender fluid and gay shared that when he was 6 years old he asked his mother if he could like boys.

The most common fear of identifying as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered was the fear of rejection and all correlated this with not coming out at an earlier age. This shouldn’t surprise anyone reading this but it was an overwhelming majority of LGBTQ students that echoed this sentiment. Mallory, a 22-year-old lesbian told a story about being the center of gossip in her small rural town when she came out. She said repeatedly that her fear was that those closest to her would begin to look at her differently, like a pedophile who intended to steal and eat all of the children in town like a monster.

Coming Out

Most of the students interviewed report coming out to the safest people possible at first. This usually consisted of closest friends and siblings. Ironically, most of them report that the individuals they first came out to already had suspicion that they were not heterosexual. The average age of coming out among those interview was 16-18 years old. They all indicate that the time period between accepting they were gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered and when they came out were the most difficult years. We’ll explore that a little later.

Several indicated that the process of coming out never ends. With each new person they tell the process starts over for them. The fear of rejection and anxiety resets and with each new person they meet for the rest of their lives will likely provoke some measure of anxiety as well.

One young woman shared that she believed there were three layers of coming out; to the first individual, family and friends, and publicly, each with their own unique factors.

Bree, a 20-year-old lesbian reminded me that these are issues I will never have to deal with because I identify as a white, heterosexual, Christian male and since I won’t have to deal with them I am likely biased to expect the rest of the world (including LGBTQ individuals) to experience the world just like I do.

If it’s possible to summarize issues so complex I would say this; the time between when a young person identifies internally that they are gay, lesbian, bi, or trans and when they actually come out to others is the time they are at the greatest risk for substance abuse, depression, self-harm, suicide and other mental health related concerns.

If that is even remotely true it beckons a response. So, then what is the best response(s) from people of faith?

Building Bridges (overview)


In an attempt to bridge the gap between the LGBTQ community and faith communities, we are hosting a blog series aimed at helping faith communities grow in their understanding of an often misunderstood people group. The series will consist of 6 posts, many of which are informed by actual conversations with individuals within the LGBTQ community. Here’s what you can expect from this series:

Part 1: Definitions: If you’re anything like me you’re lost in LGBTQ lexicon. Let’s start by clarifying what is meant when certain words are used.

Part 2: Major Themes Among LGBTQ Students: We will hear from LGBTQ students on theme such as Family Rejection/Acceptance, Coming Out, LGBTQ-Related Stress, Intersections with other Identities, Trauma/Bullying, Suicide, Social Invisibility, and Substance Use.

Part 3: Personal Factors Related to Health/Wellness: What factors promote health/wellness and impede health/wellness.

Part 4: Systemic Factors Related to Heath/Wellness: What factors promote health/wellness and impede health/wellness.

Part 5: Strategic Recommendations: We will begin a dialogue among readers with the intention to problem solve strategic ideas for closing the gap between our LGBTQ brothers/sisters and the local faith communities.

Part 6: A Story of Bridge Building: A first-hand account of the impact of effective bridge building.

Online discourse is encouraged and we want to create space for a variety of perspectives to be communicated here. We will not tolerate hate speech or trolling. Comments are moderated for this reason. We wish this to be a safe place for all to join the conversation.

Developmental Relationships and Youth


1626473042009youth_summit_flyer_photoI came across this article from the Search Institute that is an update on their research of developmental relationships. The Search Institute adopted the term developmental relationships to describe the broader conception of relationships that are defined by the close connection between a young person and an adult or peer that powerfully and positively shapes the young person’s identity and helps the young person develop a thriving mindset. A thriving mindset is one that is focused on more than just surviving and is flourishing, thriving.

The Search Institute has created a Developmental Relationship Framework that is based on qualitative and quantitative research regarding developmental assets and focuses on making a positive impact in young people’s lives. I can’t help but think of the possible impact this research has on how we build relationships with youth in our homes, ministries, and communities as it relates to spiritual formation. There are 20 identified actions that make a relationship developmental. They are organized into the framework listed below:

Express CARE: Show that you like me and want the best for me.

  • Be present – pay attention when you are with me.
  • Be warm – let me know that you like being with me and express positive feelings toward me.
  • Invest – Commit time and energy to doing things for and with me.
  • Show interest – Make it a priority to understand who I am and what I care about.
  • Be dependable – Be someone I can count on and trust.

CHALLENGE Growth: Insist that I try to continuously improve.

  • Inspire – Help me see future possibilities for myself.
  • Expect – Make it clear that you want me to live up to my potential.
  • Stretch – Recognize my thoughts and abilities while also pushing me to strengthen them.
  • Limit – Hold me accountable for appropriate boundaries and rules.

Provide SUPPORT: Help me complete tasks and achieve goals.

  • Encourage – Praise my efforts and achievements
  • Guide – Provide practical assistance and feedback to help me learn.
  • Model – Be an example I can learn from and admire.
  • Advocate – Stand up for me when I need it.

Share POWER: Hear my voice and let me share in making decisions.

  • Respect – Take me seriously and treat me fairly.
  • Give voice – Ask for and listen to my opinions and consider them when you make decisions.
  • Respond – Understand and adjust to my needs, interests, and abilities.
  • Collaborate – Work with me to accomplish goals and solve problems.

Expand POSSIBILITIES: Expand my horizons and connect me to opportunities.

  • Explore – Expose me to new ideas, experiences, and places.
  • Connect – Introduce me to people who can help me grow,
  • Navigate – Help me work through barriers that could stop me from achieving my goals.

Spend some time with other adults and youth to flesh out these ideas. Here are some questions to get you started. Hopefully they will lead to other questions and solutions.

Beyond just understanding the concepts of developmental relationships how can we create space for and strengthen these necessary relationships in our homes, ministries, and communities?

How can we identify systems that support or stand in the way of the building of developmental relationships?

What methods and activities can we create the help new or existing relationships move towards a developmental relationship?

How can we collaboratively work with other youth oriented entities to build developmental relationships?

Visit http://search-institute.org for more information on developmental assets and developmental relationships.

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