Equipping Faith Communities to Keep Children and Youth Safe

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By Jeanette Harder

When you read headlines about child abuse or neglect, you may feel powerless to help. None of us can protect every child all the time, but we can take steps to protect the children in our homes, churches, and communities. Child abuse and neglect crosses all boundaries of class, ethnicity, education level, and religion. It is the job of adults to do the strong and courageous work of protecting children and youth. We need to pay attention, care, and act.

Faith communities often provide valuable support for people of all ages and all walks of life and are typically great places for children and families. Research shows that faith communities that actively work to address child abuse and neglect exert a highly protective influence upon children in their congregations and in their communities. Whether it’s a church, synagogue, or mosque or a school, child-care facility, or camp, attention to child and youth safety must be paramount.

Keeping children and youth safe can be challenging. While it is important to teach our children about “stranger danger,” we must also realize that children are much more likely to be hurt by their caretakers or other people they know and trust. Factors that may put a child or youth at risk are often complex and difficult to navigate—domestic violence, substance abuse, mental illness. Any of us with children can acknowledge how the stresses of life can make it difficult to be good parents; add ingredients like community violence, unsafe housing, or chronic unemployment, and you have a recipe for disaster.

Rather than be overcome by the immensity or complexity of the problem, let’s be moved to action. Let’s value all children we come into contact with—let’s listen to them, respond to them, and be a voice for them, when needed. Let’s reach out to youth—let’s mentor them, teach them, be a friend to them. And let’s assist parents—let’s lend a hand, be patient, and understand they may be experiencing more stress than we know.

Here are some simple things you can do today to keep children and youth safe:

1. Meet or talk with a neighbor.

2. Play basketball with a teen.

3. Smile at a child.

4. Talk to children about appropriate boundaries and behaviors.

5. Help children identify trusted adults in their lives.

6. Donate food, clothing, books, or toys to an organization that serves families.

7. Call a community agency that works with children and families and ask for a list of their volunteer opportunities.

8. Find creative, positive ways to discipline your children.

9. Explore the Child Welfare Information Gateway website: www.childwelfare.gov. Find information (definitions, statistics) specific to your state.

10. Advocate for policies that protect children and families with local, state, and national leaders.

If you’re part of a faith community, you can also:

1. Locate and read your faith community’s policy on child safety and protection. If they don’t have one, develop and carefully implement a policy that includes guidelines on the reporting of suspected abuse or neglect to authorities.

2. Call your local CPS office or police unit and invite someone to speak to your church or group about child abuse.

3. Find a safe-environment curriculum to teach the children in your church. Talk with your director of children’s education about what you found.

4. Provide parenting classes, support groups, and friendship for parents.

5. Become familiar with resources in the larger community and partner with them.

6. Start a prayer journal for the children and families in your community.

Whether members of a faith community or not, every adult has a responsibility to keep children and youth safe. Don’t let denial keep you from helping a child. Be a voice.

Dove’s Nest is a 501(c)(3) organization that works to “empower and equip faith communities to keep children and youth safe in their homes, churches, and communities.” We provide training and consulting, resources, and curriculum to faith communities all around Nebraska and the United States. Let us know if we can help your faith community keep children and youth safe. Visit our website, www.dovesnest.net, for resources and volunteer opportunities. We have an immediate opening for an executive director—see our website to learn more and apply. Let us work together to keep the children and youth in our communities, our churches, and our families safe and give them the secure foundation they need to grow and thrive.

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