Child abuse prevention at church

April 10th, 2018

Since 1983, April has been designated Child Abuse Prevention Month in the United States. Each April, we commit to raise awareness about the difficult reality of child abuse and take action to prevent abuse in our communities. Unfortunately, church communities have never been exempt from the reality of child abuse. In 1996, the United Methodist Church adopted a resolution aimed at reducing the risk of child abuse within the church—in other words, making church a safe place for children.

Since that time, the UMC has developed Safe Sanctuaries®, a program that assists local congregations in implementing practical policies to keep children and vulnerable adults safe from abuse. Safe Sanctuaries® empowers the adults who care for children to implement appropriate boundaries, recognize signs of abuse, and respond to evidence or allegations of abuse. If your community doesn’t have an up-to-date child abuse prevention policy in place, check out Discipleship Ministries’ article “How to Begin Developing and Updating a Safe Sanctuaries® Policy” for resources to help you get started.

Educating adults who care for children is a great place to begin your community’s child abuse prevention efforts. But it’s important to remember that educating caregivers is only a starting place. Child abuse is more prevalent in cultures where children are disempowered and adults are unaccountable. Child abuse prevention policies create a culture of accountability for adult caregivers. But how do we empower children?

Children are vulnerable to abuse in part because they rely on adults to teach them what behavior is acceptable. Children may feel intense discomfort about an adult’s behavior toward them, but believe the behavior must be normal because it comes from an adult. When we empower children with the knowledge that their bodies belong to them, and they have a right to body boundaries, they are more prepared to identify inappropriate adult behavior. Of course, body boundaries must be revisited as children grow and change. For example, when children are young, it’s appropriate for an adult caregiver to help them use the bathroom. As they get older, children need privacy. Whatever a child’s stage of life, there are ways to empower them to recognize their own and others’ right to body boundaries. Below are a few ideas:

  • Use common games and songs to talk about bodily autonomy and consent. The Deep Blue Life lesson on “When We Need Help Staying Safe” [available as a free download below] offers some great ideas, such as using the game “Red Light, Green Light” to start a conversation about boundaries and consent.
  • If there are times when church members tend to offer hugs (such as during the Passing of the Peace in worship), use it as a teaching moment one Sunday. Encourage children and adults alike to ask one another “May I give you a hug?” Remind children that it’s okay to say no, and to offer a handshake, fist bump, thumbs-up or peace sign instead.
  • Remind children in your ministry that church is a safe place to ask questions and share their feelings and concerns. Encourage them to identify trusted adults in the community whom they can talk to if they ever feel unsafe. Empower children to trust their intuition; if they feel uncomfortable in a situation, even if they aren’t sure why, encourage them to talk to a trusted adult.   
  • Check out books such as My Body Belongs to Me by Jill Starishevsky, Let’s Talk About Body Boundaries, Consent & Respect by Jayneen Sanders, or Some Secrets Should Never Be Kept by Jayneen Sanders. These books offer useful ways to talk with children about body boundaries. You can also offer them to families as tools to broach difficult topics at home.
  • If your church uses a faith and sexuality curriculum for children, make sure you choose one that covers consent and boundaries, such as Wonderfully Made (Abingdon Press).

You might find that as you incorporate lessons about body boundaries and consent into your ministry, adults are empowered, too! When the most vulnerable people in your community are safe and empowered, everyone is better off.

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