For some churches, reporting abuse is an area of the unknown. Many times church leaders or volunteers don’t know whom to call to report, when to call, who makes the call, and who else needs to know a call has been made. But reporting is the first and most crucial step for churches to take when abuse is disclosed, observed or suspected.
Julie Lowe, author of SafeGuards: Shielding our Homes and Equipping Our Kids, says:
“When abuse is brought to our attention, we must work hard to not respond based on emotion or personal bias, but instead be willing to act wisely, justly and deliberately.
Reporting abuse is not simply a legal mandate; it is a moral and biblical one as well. The laws are meant to protect the innocent and reveal the guilty, to define what is abuse and what is not. I’m sure we would all agree that protecting the vulnerable is a good goal, but to do that, we must also accept that it is not appropriate for anyone, except the proper agencies, to investigate an allegation or to dismiss one.”
There are three important steps in the reporting process that must not be overlooked. The first thing many are surprised to find out is that whoever witnesses abuse, suspects abuse, or receives a disclosure of abuse is the one who must make the call.
Many times church volunteers, when asked, say they would tell the pastor and leave it up to him to take care of it from there. But very few understand that it’s their duty to make the call. When the decision to make a report has been made, there are three steps to take within 24 hours.
1. A report must be made in the county where the abuse occurred, is witnessed, or is suspected to be occurring. If a child lives in a county different from where your church is located, you must call that county to report. If the abuse occurred in your church, you must call the county where your church is.
Be aware of the hours that reports can be made. If a hotline is not available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and it’s a Sunday (when most ministry occurs), make sure you have access to another number to call. All staff and volunteers should know these numbers and have them easily accessible. Documentation of making the report should be noted by the person making the report using a Suspected Abuse Report form. Document the dispatcher’s name and case number if assigned one.
2. Determine who in your church will be notified that a report has been made. Some churches’ reporting policies state that the senior pastor and the ministry director both be alerted to the fact that a report is being made or has been made. No matter who it is, it is recommended that at least two leaders are listed who should be notified. If one of the persons listed is the suspected offender, there should be someone else who can be notified. Making sure all staff and volunteers are aware of exactly whom to notify and when is crucial to protecting the victim and his/her family’s privacy.
When all staff and volunteers know exactly who needs to know, it eliminates chatter among staff and volunteers that can lead to damaging gossip and sloppy handling of the situation. It’s highly recommended that every church take some time to think this through and set up a written plan of precisely what needs to happen once a report is made and who needs to be notified, and when. It’s similar to creating a fire emergency plan. It ensures a victim-centered response and allows the pastor and/or leadership to focus on caring for the victim and his or her family rather than wasting time determining what to do.
3. Notify your insurance carrier within 24 hours of making a report. Many churches do not know if they have sexual abuse coverage and don’t realize that if they do, their coverage could be negated if they neglect to inform them that a report has been made. Some insurance companies require to be notified in writing. Determine if you have coverage and, if you do, what your requirements are regarding when a report is made.
Steps one and two may be done simultaneously should a staff member or volunteer be unclear whether they need to report. Consulting with the church leadership person(s) preselected to be notified can be helpful to those who are unsure of how or if they need to report.
However a church sets up its internal process, it’s imperative that all staff and volunteers are trained on it! When everyone knows exactly what to do and whom to tell, it ensures the protection and confidentiality of the victim. Remember, all reports of suspected abuse made in good faith may be made anonymously and are immune from civil liability. If your church needs assistance in creating a response and reporting plan, please visit our Pathways page or reach out to Kris Buckman at the Baptist Convention of Maryland-Delaware.