How I wish that I didn’t have to write this blog post. I wish we didn’t live in a world where youth workers carried this burden, but wishing doesn’t make something true. There are some things in ministry you’re just never prepared for. One of those is when a student opens up about abuse in their lives.
It could be a parent, sibling, boyfriend/girlfriend, or other relative. It could be physical, emotional or sexual. They may tell you outright or simply hint at it. Abuse reporting is one of those harsh realities of life in ministry and I want you to be aware of the potential pitfalls. That being said, I am NOT a lawyer, and don’t pretend to offer legal counsel.
Instead this article should be a starting point for discovering your local requirements and church policies. If you don’t know what your church policies are, then you need to ask. If your church doesn’t have any policies, then YOU need to get the ball rolling to clarify those policies and own the process to put it into place. You NEED a plan because…
It’s not a matter of IF, but WHEN.
According to some research, “1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys is a victim of child sexual abuse”1. That means if you have a ministry of 100 students there will be a MINIMUM of 5-20 students who have been the victim of some form of abuse. So, if you’re in ministry for any length of time, there will be a time when suspected or confirmed abuse will come to the surface. It’s better to be prepared ahead of time than to be scrambling the first time someone opens up to you.
Speaking of opening up…Most abuse is perpetrated by someone the victim knows and trusts. Simply by opening up to you, they are taking a big risk and they need you to believe them. No matter how far fetched it may seem they are turning to you in a time of need and you need to show them that the trust is warranted. Whatever you do don’t make the judgment call on whether they are lying or not. When it comes to abuse, take them at their word.
As a youth worker, God has called you to be an advocate and voice for those who are defenseless. There are many legal reasons why you must report abuse, but the main reason to report known or suspected abuse is because God has entrusted you to watch over his sons and daughters.
Too often, the church has been late to the game in responding to accusations of abuse and the results are disastrous. Abuse gets covered up, more victims are abused and churches are left in ruins. In addition to the harm to the victims and to your church, failing to report abuse could result in a loss of ministry.
When do you have to report?
According to most state and federal guidelines, you MUST report abuse when you suspect or have reason to believe that a child has been abused or neglected. The key word is SUSPECT. The burden of proof is not on you. You’re just the one who has to report what you’ve seen and heard. Youth workers get in trouble when they do their own investigations before reporting. It’s up to the state and local government to follow through with the investigation and determine if any action is needed. So DON’T wait until you’re sure.
Who actually files the report?
Some churches have people who are designated to make the report, so while the actual report may not be made by you, you are responsible to ensure that a report is made. That means unless you know for sure someone has filed the report (you were there or you have a case number), you MUST file it yourself. If it gets back that you knew and didn’t report it, the law will hold you responsible.
If you tell your church leadership and you feel like they are dragging their feet or sweeping it under the rug. DO NOT GO ALONG. It’s not worth it in the end to hide suspected abuse simply to support your leadership. No matter the reason, hiding abuse is not a sign of healthy church leadership.
How do you make the call?
Most states or local governments have a hotline that you call to report suspected abuse. Just google “child abuse reporting in (your state)” and you’ll likely get the number. You can also call the local police and they will direct you to the right number.
Most likely you’ll have to give a statement about what you know. No need to share what you think happened, just what you saw or heard. You can give your name or remain anonymous if you don’t feel comfortable. Then they will likely give you a case number that you can follow up with later to see if any action has been taken.
What if I’m wrong and I hurt the parents trust?
Believe me, this is a tough one. The last thing an innocent parent wants to hear is that someone thinks they are an abuser. Emotions are likely to get high, but you must remain calm. Remember, you’re doing this for the sake of the child, not the parents. In the end, most reasonable parents will find comfort in knowing that some adult cares enough about their child to be their advocate. If you feel that you need support, bring a trusted church leader with you
Speaking of parents, do I tell them that I’m reporting them?
That’s a judgment call based on your relationship with the family. Wisdom tells me that it’s more effective to walk with the family through this. That means communicating with them alongside your report. If you don’t feel up to it, then you can always ask a senior leader in the church to come alongside you for support.
So do I tell the students first?
Often in student ministry we feel the pressure to keep secrets in order to preserve trust in the relationships. When abuse (or self harm) is involved you cannot remain silent. At this point you are not a friend you are an advocate. You must act in the best interest of the child, even if it may result in a breach of trust. Never tell a student that you can keep any secret because that is setting up a false expectation that you’ll one day have to break.
I tell students that because I care for them and because I am required by law, I must make the report. I also assure them that I will walk with them through the entire process, that I’m not going to leave them on their own. This is where as a youth worker you must remain faithful to your student. They need you now more than ever.
In the end, how you handle this kind of crisis will test your leadership. You’ll need to rely on God’s strength to do the right thing, even if it means offending your students, a parent, or even your church leadership. But God is calling you to be brave and defend the defenseless. And doing these hard things could mean the difference in life or death, so don’t back away from the fire.
I’m new to all this…more resources please!
Where can you go for resources/training? There is an amazing ministry called Ministry Safe. They’re experts in helping the church protect children through creating safety systems. We use them at our church and they are amazing. Check them out at ministrysafe.com
1 David Finkelhor, Crimes Against Children Research Center