Learn 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.
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 privileged information.
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 steps.
- 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 “betrayal.”
- 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.
SIGNS OF ABUSE
Make no mistake: Dealing with abuse is difficult. As children’s workers, we must be watchful, guarded, and wise when it comes to our children, but we must not jump to conclusions or make unfounded accusations.
There can be many physical signs of abuse, such as bruises, burns, welts, fractures, and lacerations. Less obvious signs of physical and emotional abuse can include aggression, impaired trust, fatigue, and passive or withdrawn behavior. Abused children may react apprehensively when other children cry. They may exhibit irrational and persistent fears and hatreds. Some of the common indicators displayed by the abusive parents or caregivers might include ignoring, belittling, or isolating the child. The parent may also give unusual explanations for the child’s appearance or behavior.
It’s possible to go overboard. If we look for abuse, chances are we’re going to find it. If we let our watchful care turn into a crusade, the damage that can be done to an innocent parent, his or her marriage, a family, and the children involved can be devastating. Uncovering an abusive situation can be very uncomfortable, perhaps even a little hazardous. Yet there’s a greater danger present here: Some seemingly abusive situations simply aren’t what they seem. That’s an important caveat.
Children have accidents. Running, climbing, and playing hard usually result in bruised or scratched legs, arms, and faces. To distinguish between abuse and accidents, consider the location and size of the injury. Multiple small, explainable injuries on a child’s calf aren’t as suspicious as bruises on a child’s thighs, back, or chest.
Look at the shape of the injury too. Abuse injuries may reveal signs of being beaten or tied with a rope or cord. A bruise in the shape of a belt buckle or lash-like marks should be looked at closely. Accidental injuries, however, usually have no definite shape.
From the perspective of people who want children to know the love of a caring God and devoted parents, the more heinous effect of abuse is the horrific assault on the spiritual well-being and development of an abused child. Abusive parents are unable to model love, acceptance, forgiveness, and mercy. By itself, this inability can cause impairment in the child’s faith development. When actual abuse takes place, though, the problem is compounded.
Abuse at any level can destroy children’s self-esteem, personality development, and ability to trust intimate relationships. Dr. Alan Hanson, executive director for the Samaritan Counseling Center in Toledo in Sylvania, Ohio says, “The world is first experienced through a child’s interaction with parents. This relationship remains a powerful source of a child’s worldview throughout life.”
The concept of a loving heavenly father is difficult — perhaps impossible — for an abused child to comprehend or accept. Many of the children in our churches are taught at an early age to think of God as their heavenly parent. But when an earthly father or mother abuses a child, the image of a benevolent heavenly “Dad” is easily replaced by the image of a “being” who cruelly hurts and controls. The God who is really so full of grace and goodness is perceived as untrustworthy and, at least mildly, malevolent.
Pelzer writes, “About a month before I entered the fifth grade, I came to believe, that for me, there was no God…No just God would leave me like this. I believed that I was alone in my struggle and that my battle was one of survival…I found that words like “hope” and “faith” were only letters, randomly put together into something meaningless — words only for fairly tales.”
Physical, emotional, and sexual child abuse are found in every kind of home and in every socioeconomic situation. When the abuse is found in homes where Christ is said to be the center, the implications are particularly unnerving. Earthly parents can hurt; maybe God can too, children reason.
“A child’s experiences, especially in the first five years,” says Carol Kutcher, an early childhood consultant in Toledo, Ohio, “heavily influence their perceptions of the world around them. What they see in their limited world of family, friends, and neighborhood is often extrapolated to become ‘the rules for how all things work.’ A child’s experience with their father becomes an overall model for the concept of ‘Father God.’ ”
“Children need parents’ blessings to experience God in positive ways,” says Dr. Hanson. “God is a reality which is transmitted through word and experience. The words of parents and experience with parents become formative agents for a child’s perception of God. Abusive parents tend to shape one’s image of God in the negative.”
Abused children can carry intense feelings of guilt and shame and may be unable to exhibit love and trust toward adults. Many times these feelings are then projected toward God because of our use of the parental terms to describe God. Abba is an endearing term used by Hebrew children for their fathers — just as American children use Daddy or Papa when addressing or referring to their earthly fathers.
Scripture encourages us to think of our Heavenly Father as our Abba or Daddy. Paul tells us “but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” (Romans 8:15-16, NIV). And he says, “You can tell for sure that you are now fully adopted as his own children because God sent the Spirit of his Son into our lives crying out, ‘Papa! Father!’ Doesn’t that privilege of intimate conversation with God make it plain that you are not a slave, but a child?” (Galatians 4:6, The Message).
Abused children find it hard, and may refuse to think of God as a father figure. Their perception of God can be very conditional: They might learn about him and even respect him to a certain point. He can be worshiped but not necessarily trusted. He can be loved but only from a distance. Without our intervention and some creative and loving prevention, kids may choose not to trust in their Abba Father. The results of that are simply not acceptable.
“A basis of faith is the ability to trust God’s Word and believe the love God makes available to us,” comments Dr. Hanson. For abused children, Dr. Hanson continues, “Concepts like forgiveness and love built on grace, and salvation which is redeeming, become unbelievable or difficult concepts.”
As we minister to child victims of abuse, we must for a season allow abused children their reluctance to think of God as a heavenly parent until some very real, intentional healing processes begin. This isn’t counter to our goal of helping people come to know Christ as Lord and Savior. In reality, helping abused children see God as God alone may, in effect, remove some barriers or stumbling blocks for these precious little ones we desire to bring to Christ. The following healing points can bring an abused child to a healthy understanding of our Abba God.
- Allow children to express concerns and doubts about God’s reliability. I’m not encouraging heresy or sacrilege here. I’m encouraging discovery of God’s loving nature and his trustworthiness. Dr. Hanson points out an important fact about abused children. He says, “Love is colored by punishment…Guilt — even shame — begins to dominate one’s life. The idea that one is not good enough or cannot do anything right to please an angry God builds in the life of the child.”
- Allow children to freely express anger toward God. Dave Pelzer remembers his hatred of God as he lived through his ordeal of abuse. “At that instant, I hated God more than anything else in this world or any other world,” Pelzer writes. “God had known of my struggles for years, but He had stood by watching as things went from bad to worse…Inside I cursed His name, wishing I had never been born.”
- God is fully aware of the atrocities against children. He is not only able, but also willing, to withstand questions about his character by these hurting children. He desires to lovingly calm their fears and heal their hurts. Scripture is full of promises and proclamations of God’s goodness that speak to the doubts and concerns of those estranged from God or under attack from others. For example, read Psalm 55.
- Teach how vastly different God’s nature is from human nature. As adults, we often belittle ourselves when we fall short. We can’t believe that God could love and accept us. We fail to remember the grace of God. How much more awful can this be for child victims of abuse? Help children accept God’s grace and understand that the abuse is not their fault. The abused child no longer has to accept guilt for the things others have done to them.
- Help children know that God loves them — in spite of their human family situation. Abused children have feelings of inferiority and low self-worth but God’s love is unconditional. God loves them completely and without reservation. God’s love is not based on the kind of home a child lives in or how happy a child’s family life may or may not be.
- Redefine “family.” Explain that the word “family” refers to relationships, and that we all can be members of more than one family. One family might be hurtful; the other heavenly family can be based fully on unconditional love and respect. In Sunday school lessons and children’s programs, teach the fundamental similarities and differences between the family of God and the human family. God wants children to be in his family, and Jesus is their brother and friend.
- Explain the difference between remorse and repentance. An abuser may feel remorse, but without true repentance, the abuse will continue. The abused child, as well as the church and the state, can and should expect a change in an abuser’s behavior instead of false repentance with empty promises.
- Resist “politically correct” remedies. Some might argue that a solution is to stop calling God “Father” altogether. Only through the love of a father to his child can we see Abba’s fondness for us; only through the death of God’s child can we see the depth of our Abba’s sacrifice. It’s through the concept of Jesus being God’s child that we can identify with Jesus’ true humanity and suffering. Only then can we fully realize our joint-heir status in God’s family. These terms must remain vital in the Christian community for children to fully understand their salvation and heritage.
Dr. Martin Johnson has been in full-time ministry for nearly 30 years, serving in churches ranging in size from church plant to mega-church in both Kansas and Ohio. His ministry positions have included ministry with youth, children, and families and currently as the lead pastor in the greater Toledo metroplex. As both a pastor and a seminary professor, Martin finds ministering to children and families to be the most rewarding work of his ministry career.
CHILD ABUSE RESOURCES
For added help, request information from these agencies.
- The Child Welfare League of America is an association of hundreds of agencies serving children, youth, and families of abuse.
- The Child Abuse Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information is a service of the Office of Child Abuse and Neglect — a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. They offer printed materials on child abuse and abuse documentation.
- The Hazelden Foundation publishes many resources, including some 12-step formats.
- The American Association of Pastoral Counselors is a membership organization that certifies pastors to do mental health.
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