In the past few years, a spotlight has turned on child abuse, particularly child abuse in the places where children ought to be especially safe: the home, the school, and the Christian church.
In an effort to curb abuse, and to help children escape it, states have begun designating key adults as “mandated reporters.” In simple terms, that means if one has viable reason to suspect abuse, one is required by law to call it in to a government agency.
The list of mandated reporters varies from state to state. In Pennsylvania, I am a mandated reporter on two counts: first, because I am a pastor’s wife, and second, because I am a foster parent. If I were a school employee, a health care provider, or a paid or unpaid regular-program worker responsible for the welfare of children, I would be a mandated reporter too. Some states name all their citizens mandated reporters.
It is scary to talk about reporting abuse. It is scary to talk about abuse at all. We want to believe the children in our care are safe. And historically, conservative Christians have preferred to handle sin within the church, instead of calling on government agencies to rebuke or punish. But at times, both of those positions have led to serious problems – the belief that it doesn’t happen here; or that if it does, we can address it ourselves.
I’ve been on both the reporting and the reported side of the law.
Early in my life as a mom, I found myself facing a state official at the door of my little townhouse. He told me he’d had a report that I wasn’t transporting my child safely in our vehicle, perhaps not using a car seat. He was curt and slightly pushy, and I was terrified, racking my brain for any sins I’d committed. He said he’d come back to talk when my husband was present. When he returned, I was calmer. (And I’d remembered the incident, which was that a few days before, we had borrowed a friend’s vehicle to get home after leaving our own vehicle in the garage for repairs – and for the first time in his life, our son rode through town on my lap. An overzealous neighbor called us in.) But the agent was calm too. In fact, he apologized for his rudeness the day before. “Honestly,” he said, “I was annoyed that we got the call. We have bigger issues to track down.”
We signed a paper stating that we would use appropriate vehicle restraints for our son. That was the first time we were reported; there was a second. But after both issues were investigated, both were dismissed as not causing concern, without further action.
I believe there is widespread fear that if child abuse is suspected and reported, a) the state will take instant and foolish action to remove a child from his home, or b) personal relationships will be compromised by the act of reporting. In my experience, both fears are unfounded. First, the government wants children to be raised by their parents. This is how it’s meant to be, and saves everyone considerable hassle, cost, and pain. As foster parents, my husband and I have worked closely alongside many state workers, and have found them to be compassionate, level-headed, and honestly helpful, working toward the well-being of the family unit. If there is nothing to raise concern, the issue is laid to rest. If there is valid concern, appropriate helps will be offered. Children are removed from their homes as a last resort, when all other means have failed. Second, all reporting is strictly confidential. For five years, I lived next door to whoever reported me, but I never was given a hint of who it was, by the state or anyone else. Respect for personal anonymity is mandated; in case of leaks, jobs would be on the line.
We’ve all had moments we’re not proud of, as educators or parents. I am not advocating hyper-security in our schools and churches, spying on one another, vigilantly reporting minor infractions. I am advocating honesty. Some children in Christian circles are being hurt and abused in significant, life-changing ways every week of their lives. If we are aware of it, it’s our responsibility to speak on their behalf.
ChildLine is Pennsylvania’s abuse hotline, available 24/7 by phone or internet. Reports are transmitted quickly to the appropriate local investigating agencies.
Let’s keep children safe.
CONTRIBUTOR: Shari Zook