Safe Church

Our church, along with six other congregations in the city, has begun participating in a program called “Safe Church,” which aims to protect children from sexual abuse within the church, as well as making church safer and more welcoming for adult survivors of abuse.

Because I’m a youth mentor, and I occasionally teach Sunday school, I went to an “Approved Adult” training from the Collins Center, a local organization that helps children who’ve experienced sexual abuse. I kind of was rolling my eyes about going to the thing, but it ended up being fantastic, if only because it reframed the issue in a way that I hadn’t thought about before.

One of the first things the trainer said was, “What do we say to children when we’re trying to teach them about sexual abuse? ‘Don’t let anyone touch your private parts,’ right? Have you, as an adult, ever in your adult life had someone tell you, ‘Don’t touch children’s private parts’? Isn’t that weird?” When she put it like that, well, yes, it did seem kind of weird. Why do we put the onus on children to prevent adults from touching them? This, in part, explains some of the shame victims of sexual abuse feel–they “let” someone touch them. Because kids don’t really get that power differential.

The trainer kept returning to the theme that we, as adults, have an obligation to take children seriously, and to take on the responsibility of having awkward conversations with other adults. Sometimes that means stepping in when another adult is clearly making a kid uncomfortable, and saying, “He said to stop. Please put him down.” Sometimes it means telling people that they need to ask children, even babies, if it’s okay to pick them up or help them with something.

She recommended telling children, “If someone is touching you in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable, I want you to come tell me.” Sometimes, kids do report events that seem frivolous to adults–a teacher putting her hand on a kid’s back as she bends closer to hear him more clearly–but even those tiny things matter, because kids deserve to decide who touches them, even in a well-meaning and innocuous way. This also teaches the child that dealing with this stuff is an adult’s job, not a child’s.

One fascinating piece of data she shared was that how a parent responds is the biggest predictor of how severe a victim’s lasting trauma is. If we say, “Are you sure?” or “It wasn’t a big deal,” or “I don’t think so-and-so would do that,” we negate the victim’s experience. The best thing to say? “I believe you.”

Major points to help kids protect themselves:

  • Teach them to come to an adult if someone makes them uncomfortable. This teaches them to trust their gut and to take these kinds of problems to an adult. Always respond with, “Thank you for telling me that. I believe you. I will make sure they don’t do that again.”
  • Teach them the right names for parts of their body, especially private parts. “If an offender tries to move in on a kid, and she says, ‘That’s my vulva and it is special and it is just for me,’ you better believe that offender is going to move on,” the trainer said. Also, in the case that an abuse occurs, having the child be able to accurately describe what happened can be important.
  • Don’t make them touch anyone if they don’t want to. This even means not making them hug Grandma.

She also talked about “offender prevention,” which means keeping in mind that every sexual abuser ever was once a beautiful, adorable child. We don’t want to look at our kid and think, “What if he grows up to be a rapist?” but, probably, we should be thinking about that, if only to think about how to prevent it. I thought this part was incredibly interesting and helpful. Several years ago, I heard another presentation by a Collins Center employee, at a MOMS group meeting, and it definitely affected how I parent my children. It is, for example, why we STOP immediately whenever a kid says “Stop tickling me!” even though he might be saying it in a playful way. This presentation is why my son was so stunned when a teenager playfully scooped him up as he ran past–this hasn’t happened to Silas before, largely because I’m That Mom (sorry, family). But it’s been a long time since then, so I wanted to know if there were other things that I had forgotten or that hadn’t come up to help our children (especially, let’s be honest, our sons) grow up to be people who won’t hurt others.

Here’s the short version of her response:

  • Teach them to get consent before they touch another person (and model this yourself).
  • Teach them empathy–lack of empathy is the biggest similarity between offenders. How to do this? Good question. It can be really simple things like asking them, “How do you think Darth Vader felt when he came face to face with Luke?” or helping them name their own feelings, or encouraging pretend play.
  • Teach them how to handle embarrassment and shame. Both of these emotions make us feel powerless, and men who feel powerless try to get power back by demonstrating their power over someone else–who might be a child. When a child feels ashamed because she’s done something wrong, talk about that. Tell her, “You feel ashamed right now, and you should. That’s a feeling God gives us to tell us when we’re doing something we should not do. It’s a gift. What will you do next time to not feel like this?” When a child is embarrassed by another person’s rude comment about her, teach her to process that.

After the training, another person who sat through it said that she felt like it was all very awkward, “that kids have to spend all this time processing whether someone is making them uncomfortable and getting permission before they hug their sister and everything.” I think, though, that it wouldn’t feel awkward if it was just how things were in all of our families. It doesn’t take any time to say, “Is it okay if I pick you up?” or “I don’t like it when you touch me like that.” And I think that feeling in control of one’s own body leads to fewer behavioral problems, so it might even be a time saver.

Plus, it’s super cute when Silas says, “Petra, can I give you a hug and a kiss?” and she says, “Yes, please!” 🙂

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