There are important legal distinctions about what should happen (1) when there is abuse or neglect toward a child, elderly, or disabled person as compared to (2) when abuse occurs toward an able-bodied adult. In this lesson we will focus on children, but the same principles apply for individuals who lack the full capability to care for themselves.
If a pastor is going to honor Romans 13, then that pastor must understand these differences. Efforts to protect and ensure safety are our Christian duty regardless of the age of the person being oppressed; however our civil obligations do change based upon the age or capacity of the victim.
Reporting abuse is mandated when it is against a minor. Children have neither the level of independence to seek safety nor the intellectual capacity to understand what is happening in abuse, so our governing authorities have said they will intervene on a child’s behalf. For example, the relevant North Carolina statute reads:
“Any person or institution who has cause to suspect that a child under age 18 is abused, neglected, or dependent must make a report to the county department of social services (G.S. 7B-301).
“As long as the reporter is acting in good faith, they cannot be held liable (G.S. 7B-309).”
Every church should review their state statutes with an attorney in their state for the most recent version of these laws. Ask the attorney to translate the laws into common language for you and ask questions until you understand the implications of each statute for your state.
As we think about abuse against a minor, there are three contexts we will consider:
- a child disclosing an experience of abuse
- observations of a child that make us “reasonably suspicious” abuse may be occurring,
- hearing from a parent or other adult who knows about the abuse and is confused about what to do next
Disclosure from a minor: When you realize a child may be disclosing an experience of abuse, you want to affirm their choice to speak. For children, the unpleasant feelings that often come with talking about bad experiences can easily be mistaken for guilt.
You want to let the minor know, “I may not be able to keep everything you tell me confidential. If you are in danger, I have a responsibility to make sure you are safe. That may require us to involve people who can help us make sure you’re safe.” This is not to dissuade their disclosure, but help protect the child from feeling betrayed by the report that is filed.
Observable marks of abuse: You may see a child with bruises, scars, broken bones, or a flinch reflex to movements from a nearby adult. You may notice highly sexualized or aggressive behavior in a child too young to understand the significance of their actions. You may notice artwork or writing with themes that reveal an awareness of abusive behaviors and pain that are beyond what is age appropriate.
These traits represent the legal standard for “reasonable suspicion” for which a report should be made. It is not the role of the church to investigate these matters, but to ensure that they are investigated by civil authorities and to care for the child.
Talking to a parent or other adult: Chances are, the parent talking to you also knows the powerlessness of being abused. They’re not just sharing their child’s story; they are likely sharing their own.
It is important to share your obligation to report, even if the adult or parent is the abuser.
But in addition to that: listen to their questions, help them organize their questions, invite them to make the phone call to Child Protective Services with you, ensure them you’ll make sure they get guidance on their questions before the CPS conversation concludes, make sure the social worker explains what next steps will be taken, discuss with the social worker what safety precautions are advisable, take notes to help your friend remember what is being said, and listen to your friend as they process their fears as the conversation concludes.
Your job—in addition to making sure the report is made—is twofold: (a) make sure your friend faces no preventable surprises, and (b) ensure your friend knows that he or she does not have to remember everything that is being said.
This article is excerpted from “Becoming a Church that Cares Well for the Abused.” Access this free training at ChurchCares.com.
*Please note the curriculum is not intended to be legal counsel or to provide holistic training for counseling or pastoral care on the issue of abuse but is an accessible tutorial on how to respond with pastoral and ethical excellence. The curriculum gives a theological foundation for the topic, brings understanding on the issues connected to abuse disclosure and reporting, and gives practical wisdom by which leaders can navigate complex situations.
Published September 5, 2022