How to Pastor When You Have to Report Child Abuse

imageI’m glad to have this guest post from Dr. Ryan Darrow, a pastor with a professional counseling ministry.

With a look of panic Eve yelled at me, “You did WHAT?”

This statement, along with a Lil Wayne string of expletives, was exactly what “Eve” said to me after I told her I chose to file a report with Child Protective Services regarding the information she shared in counseling the week prior. I’m honestly surprised I wasn’t punched, kicked, or even run over by her enormous Suburban later in the parking lot. There is no way to sugar coat it, she was extremely angry. I tried my best to contact her prior to her next standing appointment but to no avail. Thus, I was forced to disclose my report at the beginning of what turned out not to be a very difficult counseling session.

Sadly, some people do (abuse) or do not (neglect) very terrible things to children. I’m not going to burden your mind with the hundreds of stories I’ve heard in my office over the years, or the dozens of times I’ve had to file reports, or even the multiple times I’ve been in the courtroom. But I do want to present a challenge and simplify the process for you. Sound like a plan? Ok, let’s answer some questions:

Who Should Report?

Plainly stated, ‘anyone with a brain in their head and air in their lungs.’ This is what I tell my college students all the time. You’ve probably heard the fancy term “mandated reporter.” Well, yes…this does exist. The legality of who is mandated to report changes from state to state. The bottom line is this, ‘a mandated reporter is a person who simply risks a state issued license to practice their vocation’, often in the helping professions (teaching, social work, therapy, medicine). If they don’t report an abuse case, they very well could be in hot water with the state licensing board. And rightfully so! The question then becomes, ‘do I have to report?’ I would say, “yes.” Any person who reasonably believes a child is experiencing abuse or neglect should file a report.

How Do I Know What Is and Is Not Report Worthy?

The burden on ‘this’ side of an abuse report falls on the reporter. Thankfully abuse is often not too difficult to detect. WebMD has a great article regarding spotting abuse or neglect.

The good news is most states write their revised statues in a very obscure manner. There are legal reasons for this and they are primarily good. There’s not a lot of black and white in the law regarding what and when you must report. Think about word ‘reasonable’. Most states use this verbiage (K.S.A. 38-2223), “Any person who has reason to suspect that a child may be a child in need of care…” Bottom line, you must become well versed in your states statues regarding abuse reporting.

Click here to find your states rules on abuse and abuse reporting.

For instance, Kansas law states, (K.S.A. 38-2202): “Physical, mental, or emotional abuse’ means the infliction of physical, mental, or emotional harm, or the causing of a deterioration of a child, and may include, but shall not be limited to, maltreatment or exploiting a child to the extent that the child’s health or emotional well-being is endangered.”

Consequently, any person with reasonable evidence of or the suspicion of evidence of abuse or neglect must file a report. It truly is a simple process that sadly many organizations have overcomplicated. This is often done for the sake of limiting embarrassment to particular members or sparing the leadership the loss of growth momentum. Rarely, if ever, is a report not filed in order to spare the victim shame. It’s very often the ‘powers that be’ protecting their hides or the organizations bottom line.

What To Do When A Child Reports Abuse.

  1. Reassure them that telling you was a safe and okay thing to do!
  2. Don’t leave the child alone or with only one adult. Additionally, don’t whisk them away to a conference room. You’ll scare the boogers out of them and they’ll shut right down.
  3. Document everything but don’t let them see it happening. Have one person talking with them and another taking notes. I often just audio record the conversation on my iPhone.
  4. Respect their privacy. You DON’T need the sordid details. Professionals will get them later. We are specially trained in how to get legally admissible information for a court case.
  5. Don’t display odd emotions, shock, disappointment, extreme sadness, or even disapproval for the perpetrator. Sadly children often bond with their ‘captors’ (Google “Stockholm Syndrome”) and might become defensive or feel attacked if you attack the alleged perpetrator. Just act normal and be nice.
  6. Assure the child that you will call someone who will help.

So, How Does One Actually Report Abuse?

First, you must determine whom you are going to call:

  1. If you feel the child is in immediate danger. Call 911.Example: The child reports that a creepy neighbor has abused them several times a week for the past several months. The child says, “Yea, I hate it when ‘creepy neighbor’ makes me have sex with him.” In this case it would be neglectful to subject the child to possible further abuse.
  2. If you feel the child in not in immediate danger. Call 1-800-4ACHILDExample: The child reports that he often goes to bed hungry and that they “never have any diapers or food in the house.”

One of the most basic mistakes people make when reporting abuse or neglect is to either ‘pull the trigger’ too quickly or too slowly. Remember this, you are not an investigative agency, although limited and non-leading questions are appropriate to determine the validity of facts. Additionally, it’s not advantageous to anyone to pick up the phone and dial 911 after a child says, “A man tickles me in funny places.” I had that line thrown at me by an adorable, blue-eyed 5-year-old girl. After a few basic questions using a teddy bear I keep in my in my office (e.g., “Show me the funny places where a man tickles you?”) and some follow up with mom in the waiting room, it was indeed the barely mobile and very elderly widower from next door who sticks a feather in the bottom of his cane and tickles kids who run up on his porch.

Yeah, don’t pull the trigger too quickly…or too slowly.

What Do You Do After Abuse Is Reported?

Number one rule, do whatever the police or city prosecutors’ office ask you to do. I once waited weeks and was “all booked up” in order to give the police time to pull off an undercover sting to nail a child sex abuser. Uhhhh yeah, I felt pretty cool about that! Legally you are not required to make any contact with the person you reported. Ethically I feel it is my obligation to inform this person prior to them coming in for counseling again. Every time I’ve made a report I’ve talked to the person after Child Protective Services visited their home. I do this because I feel that this report is only part of the healing process in their family and that hopefully the best is yet to come. The conversation goes something like this.

“Hey Adam (factitious name), I want to have an honest and hopefully life-changing conversation with you. If you have time I’d like to do that now on the phone or I’m open to talking before your next counseling appointment. Adam, I believe there is liberty in truth and that lies and secrets destroy. The Bible says in John 8:44 that the enemy of your family is the ‘father of lies’ and there is ‘no truth in him.’ Inversely, the Bible declares that Jesus Christ is the ‘truth’ and that in Him you can be set free. I was presented with information this last week that led me to file an abuse report with Child Protective Services. (I never blame the system. I tell them, it was my choice because I felt it was the right thing to do).

I believe that some time in your life you began to believe the lie of the enemy. The truth is your child is precious in the eyes of God. The lie the enemy wants you to believe is that you have to yell and scream and hit him in order to control him. This is just not true. My phone call to Child Protective Services is not the end of my relationship with you. I feel like it is just the beginning. If you’ll allow, I’d like to             journey with you as we learn together what it is you can do to please the Lord in the way you parent your child and how you interact within your family. Is that something you feel you can do?”

I’ve made that dreaded call multiple times over the years and have had various responses. I’ve had heard everything from death threats to weeping and profuse thankfulness. But at the end of the day I have only a few simple things that runs through my head:

  1. But for the grace of God, there go I.
  2. I will not keep secrets when harm is happening.
  3. I was not personally harmed or offended. Therefore, this is not about me this is about what is best for the child and the family. No matter how difficult it is or may      become.
  4. This is not the end, only the beginning of healing for this person and family.
  5. I did what was right in the eyes of God by advocating for someone who couldn’t or wouldn’t advocate for him or herself.

When lecturing about abuse reporting, I tell my students, “At the end of the day remember this, ‘It’s not about you’…it’s about protecting the innocent and exposing the truth. It’s your head that goes on the pillow at night. You need to be able to rest well.” I’m glad to report that Eve never ran me down with her Suburban and even allowed me to journey with her as she sought to be a better parent. And now that we’ve reached the conclusion of another day I’m going to hit save on this document, turn off my ‘Best of Mozart’ and let my head comfortably hit the pillow. And I will rest well.

darrowsDr. Ryan Darrow is the Lead Pastor of Overland Park First Assembly of God, a college professor and therapist. He has a BA in theology, Masters in marriage and family therapy, and a PhD in counseling. As a therapist, Ryan has accumulated thousands of hours of clinical experience in individual, marriage, family and parenting issues. He specializes in pastoral care to ministers, sexual abuse and trauma, parenting, anxiety and depression, substance abuse, adult transition and vocation related stress, post-traumatic stress, OCD, parenting and family related issues. He has recently started blogging at www.drryandarrow.com

 

Related Post: Griselda Was Raped at 13 Years Old and Her Story is Not Unusual

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Comments

  1. says

    Thank you for this helpful article. One thing to keep in mind in regards to the “don’t pull the trigger too quickly,” many states have a timeline in which you must report suspected abuse. For example, in Minnesota we have 24 hours. There are youth pastors who are now in jail because they didn’t report in a timely manner.

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