Getting Focussed on Keeping Our Kids Safe

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In the United States, April was first declared Child Abuse Prevention Month in 1983. Canada devotes the month of October to this same cause.

The National Clearinghouse on Family Violence (Health Canada) Child Abuse and Neglect Fact Sheet explains that child abuse occurs when a parent, guardian or caregiver mistreats or neglects a child, resulting in injury, or significant emotional or psychological harm, or serious risk of harm to the child.

Getting accurate data on the prevalence of child abuse is challenging because so many cases go unreported. A report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, estimated that, in 2010, 695,000 children were victims of child abuse and 1,560 children died as a result of abuse or neglect. A study from Canada’s Department of Justice estimated there were 135,573 child maltreatment investigations in Canada in 1998 – a rate of almost 22 investigations for every 1000 children in Canada. Child welfare workers were able to confirm that the abuse had occurred in almost half (45%) of all cases. The majority of child abuse cases stem from situations and conditions that can be preventable when community programs and systems are engaged and supportive.

Prevention Resources for Churches

Churches have an important role to play in abuse prevention – within the congregation and in the broader community.

The Christian Reformed Church has published Safe Keeping to support your church in working with young people to prevent child abuse. This two-session curriculum, written from a faith perspective, helps children and youth understand what abuse is and gives them strategies to use if they find themselves in uncomfortable or dangerous situations.

Dove’s Nest, an organization associated with the Mennonite Church in the United States, offers a number of resources to help U.S.-based churches raise awareness of child abuse, including a bulletin insert.

Dove’s Next also offers Circle of Grace, a curriculum that teaches children and youth how to identify and maintain appropriate physical, emotional, spiritual and sexual boundaries; recognize when boundary violations are about to occur; and demonstrate how to take action when boundaries are threatened or violated. This curriculum is being reviewed by the office of Safe Church Ministry, as well as several CRC churches. Ask your Safe Church representative to check it out while it's on display at the Safe Church Ministry Conference at the end of April. A faith-based curriculum like this one is valuable in that it teaches children and young adults to respect all people and encourages healthy relationships that honour God.

Little Warriors is a national charitable organization, based in Canada, focusing on the education and prevention of child sexual abuse. Little Warriors website lists seven helpful steps for effective prevention of child sexual abuse, but many of the steps are applicable to all forms of abuse.

Promoting protective factors, conditions in families and communities that research has shown to increase the health and well-being of children and families, is also an important way to prevent child abuse. Churches can promote protective factors by supporting organizations that build strong families and strong communities. Protective factors include healthy early child development, emotionally resilient parents, and concrete supports for parents such as help with food, clothing, healthcare, housing and transportation.

 

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I know the automatic assumption about keeping children safe is all about keeping them from abuse by adults.   That's a good thing, to keep them safe from abuse.   But I wish we would also give as much concern to keeping them safe from each other.  And I am not talking about bullying or physical abuse.    I am talking about peer pressure, pre-marital sexual behaviour.   This is a form of abuse that many people take for granted.   Yet I do not see a committee for reducing pre-marital sexual activity.   Why not?  Is this not actually much more prevalent?  And just as harmful?   More harmful, really, given the large numbers of children involved?  

When we've kept children from being beaten or sexually attacked by adult predators we have done a good thing.   But then we often act as if their sexuality is merely a toy to be played with, and what we have protected then becomes lost.  

True safety in Christ does not ultimately find its fulmillment in unmarked skin and untouched innocence.   Physical safety is not an end in itself.   Bicycle helmets and 'safe church" rules, as good as they may be, will not provide safety from sin.  They cannot substitute for the eternal safety.   True safety in Christ is found in the love and grace of Christ.   This kind of safety results in lives lived for Christ.  This kind of true safety does not protect us from others, but it does protect us from ourselves.   This true safety is the salvation we find through Christ, in the love of God.   And this true safety should give children and young people the power and ability to say no to sin.   If they cannot say no, then they are not really safe. 

Judy Cook, M.Ed., is a counsellor with Salem Christian Mental Health Association in Hamilton, Ontario. I asked her to respond to the above comment. She writes:

"John flags a concern that is very real, namely, the prevalence in our western culture to sexualize children, tweens and teens primarily through music,  television, clothes, and entertainment kids and their parents are urged to consume.  The prevailing cultural beliefs about sex (essentially that sex is not that big of a deal, and can be a normal part of dating behavior) sharply contrast with the Christian belief that sex belongs in marriage.  The sociology of sexuality is a complex area, however, which has been much studied and critiqued, as any Google search will reveal, by both Christian and non-Christian sociologists, theologians, economists, etc.

"God gives Christian parents the responsibility to monitor and protect, teach and mentor their children so they can grow up to make counter-culture choices about their relationships and how their sexuality is expressed.  Christian churches, schools & colleges aid parents by modeling and promoting the same Christian values parents try to instill.

"It is not true that a permissive sexual culture leads to the prevalence of abuse.  They are separate areas of concern, each with a different focus demanding different responses.  How Christians engage the culture we live in with the good news of Jesus, for instance, is a concern the whole CRC community is tasked with; how to prevent, minimize, and heal the devastating legacy of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse experienced by some children and teens of the CRC is the unique task of Safe Church Ministry."

The use of language shapes our paradigms.   The problem with saying that a permissive sexual culture does not lead to abuse, is that pre-marital sex is not seen as abuse.  That is a worldly non-christian perspective on abuse.   The world wants us to buy into the belief that abuse is only abuse if perpetrated by the powerful on the weak, ergo older people on younger people.  However, that is not true.   Bullying is a form of abuse perpetrated by peers.   But pre-marital sexual activity is a form of abuse as well, even while consensual, since it abuses the purpose and role and place of sexual activity, and breaks down the significance of marriage.   It is an abuse of God's desire for committment and love within marriage, and is a form of uncommittment, and therefore a form of adultery.   The impersonalness and depersonalization of most pre-marital sex is devastating on later relationships of the people involved. 

Yet we have no "safe church" policies to keep our children safe from pre-marital sexual activities.   Or do we?  

Please note that I provided the wrong biographical information for Judy Cook. Judy Cook is a family therapist living in Hamilton, Ontario.  She is a member of Meadowlands Fellowship CRC in Ancaster.

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Engaging in premarital sex is a discipleship issue - those who choose to follow Jesus choose to follow his ways, which includes keeping the marriage bed holy. There are consequences for sin, for any sin, and I think it's fair to say that we are less safe when we are outside the Lord's path; He has called all of us to be holy. And He has set the bar quite high saying that anyone who looks on another person with lust has committed adultery in the heart. So who can stand and say they are without sin in this area of sexuality, anybody?

Our struggle to follow Jesus in a fallen, broken and very sexualized world is an ongoing battle. And there are good resources out there (I'm thinking of one of them, Driver's Training for Dating" available as a free download from the Safe Church website, www.crcna.org/safechurch). In our churches, we need to teach one another respect and honor for all people at all levels; and as we do that we will shine like stars in a dark world where people are devalued and selfishness and disrespect reign. And the Lord has not left us alone but has given his Holy Spirit to guide and aid us in this fight.

Though premarital sex can be very damaging, and represents an abuse of the holy ordinances of our Lord (see first paragraph). It must be noted that there is a significant difference between consensual sex and sexual abuse. One difference is choice. In sexual abuse  choice or meaningful consent is not present. Instead there is force, coercion, intimidation, even violence. The extreme sense of powerlessness that results leaves a particular kind of deep wound, and scars that last a lifetime. Some of the feelings that accompany abuse are fear, betrayal, terror, disgust, shame, pain, confusion, hopelessness. This is a very different experience than consensual sex (even regretted sex, which unfortunately is common). To compare the two makes no sense; there simply is no comparison.

Thank you for that clarification, Bonnie! I, too, am uncomfortable in making comparisons between child abuse and premarital sex. As well, I think it is important to note that asking churches to focus attention on safe church issues does not preclude them from carrying out their many other diverse mandates such as discipleship training, evangelism and education, etc. We have committees and ministries for many different purposes.

Without minimizing the significance of abuse by those in power over those who are vulnerable, I think that making a huge distinction between choice and non-choice misses the point of sin.   Is it worse then to be abused by someone, than it is to fall into an addicting sin?   Is it worse to be abused by someone than it is to abuse a peer (take advantage of a peer)?   While we want to protect innocent children obviously, does this in itself keep the perpetrators safe from their own addictions?   Does it keep "innocent" young teenagers safe from their own predilections?    How do you determine the level of choice involved in the enticement of sexual activity?   Does the porn addict have a choice?  Does the teenage girl looking for love and acceptance have a choice when the "love of her life" puts on a bit of pressure?   Does the teenage boy have a choice when he attempts to push his relationship with his date?   How often do you hear of girls (I'm not saying this is in the church community) accusing their date of rape when they become upset with him later?   Was their consent real or reluctant, or did they feel they had no choice?  

We talk about giving them the ability to make informed choices, but really that is the wrong language to use.  Rather we should give them the ability and the desire to always say no.  Both the girls and the boys.  

Yes there is some difference between abusing a pre-school child and abusing a peer, but from a Christian perspective, they result in the same thing, a desecration of sex, a desecration of love,   a desecration of marriage, and a depersonalization of the ones involved. 

Therefore I maintain that if all the safe church rules and guidelines are followed, churches will still not necessarily be "safe", because they minimize and neglect the sexual safety of their young people.   It is a false sense of protection that simply delays the destruction of innocence to the teen years and permits the teens to misuse each other.   

(And the question about who is without sin?... is often misused.  It should not be used as a weapon to shut down discussion or examination of what Christ wants us to do.  None of us is without sin.   All of us have at one time or another neglected children in our care, or applied a kind of discipline of consequences that they did not deserve, or neglected to follow through when we should have.  That doesn't mean we can't pursue the reduction of child abuse.    And if all of us are guilty of adultery in the sense of not being 100% pure in our thoughts, that does not mean that we should give up trying to "sin no more", and considering more safeguards and encouragements for our vulnerable young people.) 

Another interesting discussion that shows just how much sin is in the world and just how important the Safe Church Ministry is.  Even when child abuse is specifically targeted for discussion other agendas or topics are raised that can serve as a distraction.  Mr. Zylstra is certainly correct when he refers to the damaging nature of sin, however, when child abuse is included as just another sin and then further obfuscated by including words like choice and addiction, you do indeed minimize the significance of child abuse.  Protecting children and youth from abusers is the issue.  

Thankfully there are many individuals and organizations teaching and advocating pre-marital sexual abstinence in schools and churches across the U.S. and Canada.  And I thank God that He has annointed Safe Church Ministry to raise awareness about the heart-wrenching issues of child abuse and domestic violence.  May they not lose that focus, and continue to provide a safe forum for victims to speak out and receive protection, encouragement, counsel, prayer, and healing through Jesus Christ.

Fiona, no sin is just another sin.  All sins are disobedience to God, including both abusing children, and children abusing each other.  Every time we choose an issue, even a very good and worthwhile issue, we need to ask ourselves if we are ignoring more common and significant issues.   Our churches are largely concentrating on child abuse not because it is more common than pre-marital sex, but because society as a whole has fixated on it, partly because of abuse by RC priests and the media attention.   Never would I say it should not be dealt with and protected against.   Never.  But my point is that the church (our church) did not lead in this, it followed social services and legal departments and governments in north america.  I know.   I have been quite involved with social services and child welfare as a foster parent.   Again, better late than never, but still....  

Do not take my comments about protecting children from each other, including young people peers, as some kind of denigration of protecting young children from adult abusers.   My point is that the world is all about physical protection and it ignores the spiritual condition.   If it can get us to concentrate enough on physical protection to the point of distracting us from the spiritual condition, then it has achieved Satan's purpose by default, which is to think that physical safety is what "safe" really means, and that spiritual safety is secondary and not as significant. 

And then, the world believes that at the point that children can make an informed choice, that they are no longer being abused.  I do not agree with that.  Informed or not, they often make wrong choices, and those choices affect their spritual life, sometimes to the point of destroying a personal spiritual relationship with God.   You may think discussion of teen sex is a distraction to the issue of child abuse, but perhaps it has really become the other way around?   I believe that concentrating on young child abuse, while neglecting the abuse of engaging in pre-marital sex, is doing half a job.  I do not think that our older youth are less valuable, nor less vulnerable, than the very young.   They look pretty tough, and talk pretty tough sometimes, but underneath they are extremely vulnerable.  

Lela, yes thankfully there are individuals and groups teaching pre-marital abstinence in schools.   I have not heard of groups doing that in churches.   At least not crc.  And since there are also lots of groups, and media, and government departments, talking about child abuse and how to prevent it, then I would suggest a priority would be for churches to take up where media and governments are not active, which is to put more effort into guiding our youth into pre-marital abstinence. 

(And this is to take nothing away from the need for protection of very young children from abuse by adults or young people.) 

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One of the worst fears of those who have suffered abuse is that their experience will be minimized, misunderstood, discounted, judged as sin, and not taken seriously. Instead of offering healing balm, it's like rubbing salt into a wound; Lord, have mercy on us.

Bonnie, you are absolutely right.   Thankfully the Lord who has mercy on us, is the one who provides this healing balm.  And He provides not only a healing balm, a loving hand on our head, but also true renewal, a new heart.   He never promised us a life without suffering, but He will never leave us nor forsake us.  

We never know who among us has suffered abuse;  there are more than we know.   But the resurrection of Christ promises all of us a new life, both here on earth, and in heaven to come. 

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