Editor’s Note: Shannon Dingle begins a series for pastors, church staff, volunteers and parents today on recognizing and responding to suspected child abuse. Here’s Shannon.
Last week’s anonymous post by one of our readers was powerful. While difficult to read, children’s ministry leaders and others who work with kids need to be reminded that we will encounter some who are being abused or neglected and need our help. As she wrote last week,..
If someone had taken action when I first disclosed my circumstances instead of dismissing my words because my family seemed fine, I believe it would have made a world of difference in my life. Maybe if someone took my words and signs of abuse seriously, I could have been rescued before the abuse escalated and my abuser started coming to my room at night.
Following the post, our readers had three common responses:
- Me too. Several brave women and men commented on our Facebook page (see here and here), sharing that the post resonated with them because they also had been little kids in similar situations. Their stories were heartbreaking but underscore the importance of this topic.
- What are the signs of abuse? This post aims to answer that question.
- How does mandatory reporting work? In the near future, we will be sharing a post on this topic. For now, I’ll say that reporting should be done officially to those involved in child welfare or law enforcement, not simply to a pastor or friend.
Before we dive into the signs of abuse, how often does it happen, anyway? Well, the CDC offers the research-based estimate that 1 in 4 children experience some form of child maltreatment in their lifetimes. Unfortunately, child abuse and neglect isn’t rare, even if we wish it were. This matters.
So let’s start with some definitions. The federal government’s Child Welfare Information Gateway provides the following primary categories and definitions, found in full here:
- Physical abuse is nonaccidental physical injury (ranging from minor bruises to severe fractures or death) as a result of punching, beating, kicking, biting, shaking, throwing, stabbing, choking, hitting (with a hand, stick, strap, or other object), burning, or otherwise harming a child, that is inflicted by a parent, caregiver, or other person who has responsibility for the child. Such injury is considered abuse regardless of whether the caregiver intended to hurt the child. Physical discipline, such as spanking or paddling, is not considered abuse as long as it is reasonable and causes no bodily injury to the child.
- Neglect is the failure of a parent, guardian, or other caregiver to provide for a child’s basic needs. Neglect may be:
- Physical (e.g., failure to provide necessary food or shelter, or lack of appropriate supervision)
- Medical (e.g., failure to provide necessary medical or mental health treatment)
- Educational (e.g., failure to educate a child or attend to special education needs)
- Emotional (e.g., inattention to a child’s emotional needs, failure to provide psychological care, or permitting the child to use alcohol or other drugs)
- Sexual abuse includes activities by a parent or caregiver such as fondling a child’s genitals, penetration, incest, rape, sodomy, indecent exposure, and exploitation through prostitution or the production of pornographic materials…
- Emotional abuse (or psychological abuse) is a pattern of behavior that impairs a child’s emotional development or sense of self-worth. This may include constant criticism, threats, or rejection, as well as withholding love, support, or guidance. Emotional abuse is often difficult to prove, and therefore, child protective services may not be able to intervene without evidence of harm or mental injury to the child. Emotional abuse is almost always present when other types of maltreatment are identified.
- Behavior changes such as new fear, anxiety, depression, aggression or withdrawal, not wanting to go home, running away, or appearing afraid of certain individuals
- Overly sexualized behavior or use of explicit sexual language that’s inappropriate for the child’s age
- Changes in sleeping patterns including frequent nightmares, difficulty falling asleep. Both may result in the child appearing tired or fatigued
- Sudden refusal to change for gym or to participate in physical activities
- Changes in school performance and attendance, such as being unable to concentrate in class or frequent absences
- Trouble walking or sitting
- Eating habits that lead to extreme weight gain or loss
- Visible unexplained injuries such as burns, bruises, or broken bones
- Noticeable fading bruises or other marks noticeable after an absence from school
- Evidence of self harm (including but not limited to cutting, which we’ll address in a post here later this month)
- Use of drugs or alcohol
The biggest sign of abuse, though, is a child’s disclosure to you as a trusted adult (either directly or to a friend who comes to you on his or her behalf). In most cases, the journey of healing begins for a victim of childhood trauma when he or she tells someone and is believed. The best response you can give is, “I believe you, and I’m so sorry that happened to you.” The pain doesn’t end then, but trust and belief can be precious gifts for vulnerable kids in need of adult allies.
Let’s commit to being those allies.
Next week we’ll post about what comes next after the child’s disclosure, in terms of reporting the abuse and connecting the child and family to needed supports for safety and healing.
In addition to serving as a Key Ministry Church Consultant, Shannon Dingle is a co-founder of the Access Ministry at Providence Baptist Church in Raleigh, NC.
Key Ministry has produced a number of resources to help church leaders respond more effectively to kids and families impacted by trauma. Dr. Grcevich did this series on trauma and kids. Jolene Philo, author of Does My Child Have PTSD?, authored this series on PTSD in children.
We also recommend resources from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network as well as resources for adoptive and foster parents developed by Dr. Karyn Purvis and Michael & Amy Monroe at Empowered to Connect.