Reporting Possible Abuse
It is the absolute last thing we want to think about. Many believe that it "just couldn't happen in the Church." Unfortunately, recent times have shown us that no place is safe from incidents of physical, psychological, sexual, and even spiritual abuse to minors. Each year more and more cases of youth related abuse are reported and our Church is not excluded. While we have already discussed some guidelines for reducing the risk of abuse, we must still be clear on how we will act if we suspect a minor has been or is being abused. If you are working with young people over a period of time and don't encounter this you are either extremely blessed or perhaps in denial.
Who has to report possible abuse?
Any legal adult who is involved in the supervision of a minor and has reason to suspect that abuse might be involved.
There was a time when only people in leadership positions would report issues that they themselves could not resolve on a one to one basis. Now, state laws require that anyone involved in the supervision of a minor, whether paid, volunteer, of a position, or just helping out for the day is a “mandated reporter.” Therefore it is important to bring this to people’s attention when discussing their participation in an activity or event.
What do you have to report?
All adults involved in the supervision of a minor must report any signs of perceived physical, sexual, or psychological abuse. If a minor appears to be the victim of neglect, this too must be reported. Also, when people discuss abuse they usually think of an adult abusing a minor. Incidents which involve a minor abusing a minor must also be reported.
It is essential to remember that it is not the reporter’s job to verify whether or not something is actually abuse. That is the job of the agency being notified. Cases where people do not report an alleged incident because they try to confirm it, are seen as incidents of neglect on the reporters part.
In short: when in doubt, report. Have copies of state child abuse report forms on hand. Contact your state agency to obtain copies.
Things to look for: (this list is not exhaustive)
- Unusual or reoccurring bruises, cuts or scraps.
- Wearing the same clothes for extended periods of time.
- Unusual and extended uncleanliness
- Exhibits an eating disorder
- Unwilling to change clothes in front of others
- Exhibits sexual knowledge beyond what is usual for his or her particular age.
- Is obsessively clean
- Uses alcohol and/or other drugs
- Inflicts injuries on him or herself
- Exhibits suicidal tendencies
- Engages in delinquent behavior such as stealing, or prostitution
- Is overly eager to please
- Seeks out inappropriate relationships with adults
- Bed wetting at older ages
- Avoids contact with adults
When Do You Report Possible Abuse?
As Soon As Possible! Whenever there is a possibility that abuse may have occurred! If there is a question, the person to whom you report will know what to do.
Where do you report to?
- Police department
- Child protection agency
- Welfare department
- Department of Social Services
- Check in your local yellow pages under "child abuse."
- The parents of the abused (if the parents are the accused, do not notify them until the safety of the child is guaranteed).
- What if you suspect abuse in a child that lives in another state but is participating in an event or activity in your state?
- Make a report in the state where you are currently and ask the agency for advice. Maintain records of who you spoke with along with the time and date of the report.
- What if your not sure if it is actually abuse?
It is NOT your job to investigate whether or not something is abuse. The agency to whom you report has trained personnel for investigating these type of matters.
Maintain Good, and Consistent Records
Reports should include, the name and home address of the child involved, the name of the accused abuser(s), the date and approximate time of the alleged incident along with a description of what took place, where it took place, and the names of anyone else who might be involved. Once you have called the appropriate agency, the name of the person and the agency to whom you reported along with the date you reported should be added to the report.
The coordinator of the event should always make a copy of the report and keep it on file. These files are to be kept in the diocesan or parish office for later reference. In all cases the diocesan bishop should be informed as soon as possible.
Working with the Abused
If a child comes up to you and tells you he or she was abused, take it seriously!
If a child is exhibiting behavior that suggests he or she might be abused, take it seriously!
While there have been some incidents of false accusations, these are in fact extremely rare! Avoid interrogating the child as if they were on trial. Questions and statements such as, “are you sure?”, “maybe you misunderstood, him/her”, “that can’t be true!”, and “you probably asked for it” are extremely insensitive and can inflict more harm upon the child.
Also, be careful not to put ideas into a potential victims head. Avoid asking questions or making statements about specific things. Again that is the job of the agency to which you report. Instead assure them that they are in a safe environment and ask him or her to simply describe what happened. As he or she procedes, then ask questions for clarification (i.e. What happened next?, Where did she touch you?, etc.).
Taking the child seriously, making the report, and allowing qualified people to verify the accusation show the abused child that they are your first concern. It also shows people who might make a false accusation that there are professionals who will weed out such accusations. It even shows future abusers that you take the safety of minors very seriously and will not hesitate to deal with a situation when it arises. Child abusers will not risk being caught in such places. Above all, we want to assure the victim that it was not their fault!
American Camping Association published a book on abuse issues titled “For Their
Sake.” In the chapter on working with the abused the authors give many practical
suggestions for providing a supportive, loving, and trusting relationship. Encouraging
the victim to get professional counseling, being willing to listen, and being
prepared to be the object of a lot of negative and occasionally hostile emotions
are all ways to reinforce that it is possible to survive this type of despicable
and horrendous experience.