Protecting our children
It's a haunting question, but it is one that many, many Episcopalians and their congregations are engaged in addressing. How do we answer her question, and the same question that is asked on behalf of those who have not yet found their voices?
Our baptismal vocation includes helping those voiceless ones find the ability to speak, and it includes speaking on behalf of those who have no helper. As a church, we have learned a great deal in recent years about protecting children in our congregations from sexual abuse. We have perhaps learned less about the often greater need to respond to all kinds of abuse in our communities.
What do you do when you see a child being humiliated or beaten in public? Have you thought about how to respond? Do you have any awareness of the health of the families in your own neighborhood?
We all have heard and read about the two boys who were abducted in Missouri. One of them lived with an abuser for several years, in close proximity to many other people, yet none of them noticed or responded to that ongoing abuse. Abuse happens in families in our own congregations and among our children's friends and our neighbors. If we are our brothers' and sisters' keepers, we have a moral responsibility to take a greater interest and respond when necessary.
There are several stages of opportunity for response — directly with abusers or public authorities when we see abuse, directly with children when we become aware of abuse, through education of all members of the community and with our advocacy and governmental systems. If we are growing up into the full stature of Christ, that vocation also carries some expectation that we be willing to speak up and even suffer for what we believe about God's love for us and for our neighbor.
What are you prepared to do on behalf of other children in the schools and clubs in your community? Can you recognize signs of abuse, whether physical, spiritual, emotional or sexual? Do you know how to get help in responding?
Do you or your congregation have any awareness of the shelter and foster-care systems in your community? Has your congregation ever made connection with abused children or those who provide care for them?
The good news is that healing is possible, though it may take a long time. The teenager who asked me the question is a reasonably self-confident young woman who has a passion for helping others. God can and does work miracles in the lives of those who have suffered, but a significant part of our work must be about helping to prevent abuse of all kinds from happening in the first place. Learn what you can, come together with others to make your community a safer place, and prepare yourself to respond when you become aware of the existence or possibility of abuse around you.
Many thanks to Jeffri Harre and Ruth-Ann Collins, Children's Ministries at the Episcopal Church Center, for their assistance with the following list of resources.
The best source of information on child abuse and neglect is:
Prevent Child Abuse America, 500 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 200, Chicago, IL 60611
Phone: 312-663-3520; fax: 312-939-8962; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
For specific information about steps to take in recognizing and responding to child abuse and neglect, here are excellent websites with good information:
Prevent Child Abuse America, Resource for Parents in Recognizing Signs of Abuse
Prevent Child Abuse North Carolina, Informative Steps to Help Anyone Recognize and Report Child Abuse
Prevent Child Abuse Wisconsin, Full Resource on Observing and Responding to Child Abuse
Child Welfare Information Gateway (U.S. Govt. Health & Human Services), Fact Sheet on Recognizing Signs & Symptoms of Child Abuse and Neglect
Prevent Child Abuse America is an outstanding source of information and leadership in this area. This is a multifaceted national organization that includes Healthy Families America, a national initiative to support parents in more than 430 communities in providing a healthy start for their children from the prenatal period to the early years of life. The national and two regional offices provide intensive and individualized technical support as programs grow and adapt to meet the changing needs of the families in their communities. For more information about HFA, visit healthyfamiliesamerica.org.
Other Prevent Child Abuse America programs target advocacy, prevention education, resource development and fund-raising. The National Center on Child Abuse Prevention Research, established in 1986, enhances the link between research and practice by developing and evaluating prevention strategies and by disseminating information about child abuse/maltreatment and its prevention across the country. Prevent Child Abuse America's network of nearly 40 state chapters in 39 states and the District of Columbia are critical to its prevention mission, but the chapters are unique in the programs and services they offer. Information on all of these programs can be accessed directly from: preventchildabuse.org.
A current project with FrameWorks Institute is designed to build great awareness of and knowledge about child abuse and emphasizes a new way of framing the child-abuse issue. For more information about the research base, framing social issues in general and children's issues in particular, go to frameworksinstitute.org.