By Denise George
Correspondent, The Alabama Baptist
April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, a time when individuals, families, organizations and churches are urged to help prevent and stop the growing epidemic of child abuse.
The high rate of child abuse in Alabama keeps the state’s more than 30 child advocacy centers busy. In January 2018 alone, the Alabama Department of Human Resources (DHR) received 2,088 reports of child abuse or neglect.
The total number of children in DHR custody in January was 6,314. The high statistics in Alabama and other states confirm that child abuse and neglect is a national nightmare.
The horrifying news stories are becoming much too common. A week before Thanksgiving 2016 police officers in Helena discovered a 14-year-old boy close to death. Imprisoned in the basement of a Helena home for two years, he suffered from malnourishment, dehydration, hypothermia and respiratory distress. Police arrested the boy’s adoptive parents, Richard and Cynthia Kelly, charging them with aggravated child abuse.
Days before Christmas 2016, Butler County deputies found a brother and sister, both under age 12, severely beaten in their home outside Georgiana, near Chapman. They were rushed to a hospital in Greenville for life-saving treatment.
Police arrested Jonathan Smith, 33, and Michelle Smith, 30, charging them with aggravated child abuse, sexual torture and sexual abuse of a child under age 12.
Child abuse happens in churches, communities and in the homes of Christian families within our congregations. Most offenders aren’t lurking in dark back alleys wearing trench coats but are respected members of our churches and communities.
According to the American Medical Association, “family members or trusted friends or persons of authority commit nearly 90 percent of substantiated child abuse cases.”
The Southern Baptist Convention uses strong words in its resolutions on child abuse, citing that it “has occurred too often in churches and homes — which ought to be places of shelter and safety — and it has happened at the hands of family, educators, ordained ministers and ministry workers — who ought to be trusted persons of authority.”
They implore all Southern Baptists “to pray for children who are victims of abuse, to stand for their protection from abuse and to support safe and healthy children’s ministries in our churches and communities.”
How can Alabama Baptist churches help protect vulnerable children from child abuse and neglect?
Before hiring or placing potential church staff and volunteer workers who will work with children and youth:
• Request and check at least five personal and professional references.
• Interview the person, asking directly: “Have you ever been charged with or convicted of a crime?”
• Ask for written permission to conduct a criminal background check.
For existing staff, establish a clear set of policies with staff, teachers, children and youth workers, etc., to prevent child abuse. Respond immediately when abuse is suspected or reported.
Teach those who work with children and youth to understand Alabama law concerning child abuse. Ask professionals, such as the Alabama Network of Children’s Advocacy Centers Inc., to train church workers to recognize and report abuse. The state office provides education to schools, organizations, the public and others on child abuse and neglect issues.
It’s also vital to educate workers and parents to look for symptoms of child abuse:
• Physical marks on the body, including bruises, welts, burns, swollen areas.
• Behavioral changes such as withdrawal, aggressiveness, self-destructive tendencies, fear of adults, etc.
• Inappropriate dress, poor personal hygiene, inadequate nutrition, clothing meant to cover bruises, cuts, etc.
If you suspect child abuse within your church or congregation, report it. In an emergency situation, call 911.
Work with leaders in your community to help prevent abuse. Support agencies and organizations that address the problem.
What is child abuse?
Under Alabama law child abuse is defined as “any harm or threatened harm to a child’s health or welfare which can occur through nonaccidental physical or mental injury; sexual abuse or attempted sexual abuse; sexual exploitation or attempted sexual exploitation.”
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