How to respond to child abuse and offer healing to its
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
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
AN ACTION PLAN
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.
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
If you suspect some form of abuse, follow these steps.
- Pray for guidance and wisdom.
- Document what you’ve observed.
- Do not approach the child.
- Get advice from your pastor or Christian education director,
but remember that the responsibility rests with you.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- Support the child through the process. Be prepared for the
child to resent, at least at first, your perceived intrusion and
- 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.
- 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.