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When Abuse is Suspected

It is important for adults in the community to know what to do in cases where they suspect abuse. According to Stop It Now!, “We adults have to learn to see when people are acting strange around our kids. And we have to learn what to do when we think a person is harming a child in a sexual way. It's a lot like what you do when you see someone who is drinking and planning to drive: you try to get them help so they don't hurt someone. There are warning signs that can help us figure out whether someone we know might be interested in children…the most important piece of information we can use to protect our kids is knowing who to call for advice, for help, or to report a case of abuse.” [xi]

Stop It Now! has a confidential toll free hotline for assistance on what to do if you are concerned about potential abuse but are unsure how to proceed: 1-888-PREVENT. Stop It Now! hotline staff will walk you through the options that are available and what might be done to get help for everyone involved.

Laws in each state vary on reporting suspected child sexual abuse. The Minister, the Religious Educator, and the President of the Board need to thoroughly understand the laws on reporting. But it is also important that every person who works with or comes in contact with children in the congregation knows what is required of them if they suspect abuse. Updated legislation should be circulated widely throughout the congregation, and at least annually, there should be information in the congregation newsletter about what a congregant should do if they suspect abuse.

The National Child Abuse Hotline (by telephone at 1-800-4-A-Child) provides state-by-state information on how to report abuse in each community. In every state, doctors, nurses, dentists, mental health professionals, social workers, teachers, day care workers, and law enforcement personnel are required to report suspected abuse. In some states, clergy are mandated reporters. In about 20 states, any person who suspects abuse, regardless of their professional background, is required to report it. [xii] The law generally requires that adults report any suspicions of abuse or neglect.

Regardless of who is specified by the law to be a mandated reporter, any teacher or youth group leader who suspects abuse should contact both the Religious Educator and the minister with their concern immediately, so that required actions will be implemented. If a teacher or youth group leader has reason to suspect that a child would be endangered by returning home, and they cannot reach the Minister or the Religious Educator, the adult should contact the police or Child Protective Services immediately, and then leave an emergency message for the minister.

It is not the function of the congregation—neither the minister, the religious educator, the chair of the board or any member—to conduct a formal investigation into a case of alleged abuse. If a child tells you a story, listen carefully and affirm their courage for telling you. Do not ask investigative questions, which can hurt prosecution at a later time. Tell the child that you will contact the minister and that you will help them get help. It will be necessary and important for the appropriate congregational leaders to gather enough information about the facts and circumstances of the situation to make their best decisions about what actions need to be taken.

If alleged or suspected abuse occurs within the congregation or at a congregation-sponsored event, it should be reported as required and the facts and circumstances determined so that the appropriate leader can take necessary actions. When abuse is alleged or suspected involving someone who is part of the congregation – but not occurring at a congregational event—reporting requirements must be met but further investigation is not up to congregational leaders. In both situations, staff and leaders should attend to pastoral care needs and be prepared to make referrals as necessary.

In general, when suspected abuse is reported to Child Protective Services, the person reporting will be asked the child's name, date of birth, parent's name, details of the suspected abuse, the name and residence of the offender and their relationship to the child, and if possible, the address where the abuse occurred.

Possible Signs of an Adult Being an Abuser

Do you know an adult or older child who:

  • Refuses to let a child set any of his or her own limits?
  • Insists on hugging, touching, kissing, tickling, wrestling with or holding a child even when the child does not want this affection?
  • Is overly interested in the sexuality of a particular child or teen (e.g., talks repeatedly about the child's developing body or interferes with normal teen dating)?
  • Manages to get time alone or insists on time alone with a child with no interruptions?
  • Spends most of his/her spare time with children and has little interest in spending time with someone their own age?
  • Regularly offers to baby-sit many different children for free or takes children on overnight outings alone?
  • Buys children expensive gifts or gives them money for no apparent reason?
  • Frequently walks in on children/teens in the bathroom?
  • Allows children or teens to consistently get away with inappropriate behaviors?

If you answered "yes" to some of these questions, talk to that person. If you are uncomfortable, but don't see these signs, be sure to trust your instincts and ask questions. For information and advice on how to talk to someone, please call the Stop It Now! Toll-Free Helpline at 1-888-PREVENT. Reprinted with permission.

For more information contact safecongregations @ uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Friday, April 22, 2011.

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