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When the Bough Breaks

Martin Johnson

How to respond to child abuse and offer healing to its victims

He doesn't want his dad to hear him crying. If he hears, he'll just get even madder. He tries his best to hide his weeping, burying his face deep in his pillow. "Why does Daddy have to hit me?" the little boy asks himself. His small body lurches with the force of his sobs. "Why doesn't he just love me?"

Perhaps the most important part of understanding child abuse is realizing the depth of physical and emotional pain the child victim must feel. As adults in ministry to children, we can see the crisis intellectually, yet it's extremely difficult for us to genuinely empathize with the hurt and isolation the child feels -- unless we've felt it too. And sometimes we simply don't recognize that real, serious, ongoing abuse is taking place in the homes of some children we minister to every week. Sometimes, we just don't realize the problem.


Child abuse is one of the most offensive crimes in modern society. At least three children each day are reported as fatal victims of child abuse in the United States. About one in three girls and one in seven boys will be sexually abused during childhood. With such striking statistics, it's clear that abuse is an epidemic in our society.

Abuse and its nasty "cousins" neglect, molestation, and sexual exploitation are all the more terrible because the victims are innocent children. Our world offers a Pandora's box of tragedy -- disease, hunger, poverty, and war. Yet child abuse in our "civilized" society seems far more devastating because it pits a single perpetrator's violence against a lone powerless child.

Dave Pelzer's New York Times best seller A Child Called "It" records some of the horrific brutality inflicted upon him by his abusive mother. Pelzer writes of one such experience:

"Immediately after we entered the house, Mother made a special batch of ammonia and Clorox. She must have guessed I had been using the rag as a mask because she tossed the rag into the bucket. As soon as she slammed the bathroom door, I hurried to the heating vent. It didn't come on. No fresh air came through the vent. I must have been in the bathroom for over an hour because the gray fumes filled the small room all the way to the floor. My eyes filled with tears, which seemed to activate the poison even more. I spat mucus and heaved until I thought I would faint. When Mother finally opened the door, I bolted for the hallway, but her hand seized me by the neck. She tried to push my face into the bucket, but I fought back and she failed. My plan for rebellion also failed. After the longer 'gas chamber' treatment incident, I returned to my wimpy self, but deep inside I could still feel the pressure building like a volcano, waiting to erupt from deep inside my soul."

Pelzer's painful memoir reveals a level of abuse beyond comprehension. Perhaps Pelzer's experiences aren't typical; God forbid that they're minor compared to what other children may endure. The church must do its part in ending the cycle of abuse.


Knowing what to do when we suspect abuse is taking place can be daunting. Of course this article cannot begin to address every issue or problem that may arise when dealing with or confronting abuse. What's offered here is a starting point for creating an action plan for ministry to abused children.

emergency response handbookEmergency Response Handbook for Children's Ministry

Prepare yourself with practical ways to love children through their greatest challenges. Kids face difficult, painful stuff in life--and they shouldn't struggle alone. This rapid-response handbook gives you the confidence to share God's love and comfort with hurting kids.

Develop a plan of action with your church leadership before an incident occurs. Laws are different from one state or region to another. Contact your local child protection agency, social services department, or law enforcement agency for assistance in developing your official abuse policies and procedures. Become familiar with your state's laws governing confidentiality and privileged information.

If you suspect some form of abuse, follow these steps.

  1. Pray for guidance and wisdom.
  2. Document what you've observed.
  3. Do not approach the child.
  4. Get advice from your pastor or Christian education director, but remember that the responsibility rests with you.
  5. Contact the authorities about the suspected abuse. Many states have statutes that require professionals, and sometimes Sunday school teachers or camp counselors, to report any "suspected" abuse within a certain number of hours or days of the initial suspicion. This critical point must not be ignored. If you suspect abuse and don't report it, you can, in many states, become criminally liable for allowing the abuse to occur. The opposite can be true. If you report someone for alleged abuse with no real reason to back up your assertion and you're wrong, you may be liable not only morally but also civilly.

If you discover an actual abuse situation, follow these steps.

  1. Help protect the child or children involved. Contact the proper authorities such as the state or county social services or child protection agency. These authorities will generally conduct an in-depth investigation and place the child or children in protective custody. If the alleged perpetrator is a volunteer in your church, remove the person from service -- at least while the investigation is under way.
  2. Public statements must be well prepared and presented under the guidance of wise counsel. Be warned: Informing the entire congregation may be grounds for a slanderous lawsuit.
  3. Support the child through the process. Be prepared for the child to resent, at least at first, your perceived intrusion and "betrayal."
  4. Minister to the family. The parent who's had a child removed from the home because of suspected abuse will understandably be distraught and guilt-ridden. This person may even need protection from the spouse.
  5. Reach out to the alleged perpetrator. This person may be suspected of a repulsive act, but the church is still called to love and care as Jesus would. Provide this person a way to be reconciled with God, the church, and the wounded family members if possible. 6. Recommend qualified counseling to the child, the family, and any involved church members. Refer the family to a faith-based counselor or therapist to help them work through this difficult time. In addition, your church may need to readdress safety and security issues, hold parenting classes, and address church members' concerns.

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