How do I handle suspected abuse of an 18 year old student in our youth group?
I have a delicate issue within our youth group. For a while now I have suspected that a certain young man may be the victim of abuse at home. While I know it's my job to report it, I personally didn't have enough information to make a report. However recently, several of my students have come to me stating that they have seen bruises on his arm, back, neck, etc., or that he's told them about his father hitting him. This obviously concerns me.
The young man has already reached his 18th birthday, so the state cannot help him. The best I can do for him is help him file an assault charge, but he has two younger siblings. Should I confront the young man about reporting the abuse or do I simply call DCS and pray they listen to me, even though I don't have much to go on?
I feel frustrated and confused because I keep hitting dead ends with this. It's tearing our youth group apart because the rest of the kids are scared and worried. So my question is actually two-fold. How do I confront this young man with this new information? And secondly, how do I talk with the rest of my students about such a sensitive issue? My students range in age from 9-18 so it's a wide age range to try and deal with.
Since I don't know you or this particular student personally, I want to give you a circumspect but balanced answer. I emailed a few youth ministry veterans and asked (without giving your name) what they would tell you. There's much wisdom in each of these four responses (for what itÕs worth, three men and one woman), so I didn't want to combine their answers. I think it's worth it to read each one. Nothing is said that I'm hesitant to pass on to you.
- YOUTH MINISTRY VETERAN #1:
I've dealt with this extensively, even [in a situation that resulted in] putting a guy in prison once. Here are two thoughts.
We all know this but here is the reminder in legal language: Every volunteer and paid youth worker in every church in [our state] is a “mandatory reporter.” Meaning that they are required by law to report “any suspicion of abuse done to the student or by the student” to the authorities. Otherwise we are held liable. All youth pastors should make their youth leaders aware of this.
We did have a seventeen year old girl whose mother would beat her with a stick (bruises, etc.). She ran to a nearby store one day and called me because her mother was chasing her with a stick. When we involved the police they gave her the cell phone number of a local officer who told her to call that number if her mother started threatening her again. This really worked for that situation because she was so old. The threat of a phone call to a police officer who knew the situation was a great deterrent.
Eventually we found a Christian family willing to let her live at their house and the State was more than willing to oblige. Anyone older than 15 typically will not be taken from their home and placed in foster care because statistically by that time its worse for the child to put them in foster care. However, if there is a known family who is willing and the kid is willing, they love that situation.
YOUTH MINISTRY VETERAN #2:
My response is two-fold: First and foremost, get your senior pastor involved. He/She is the spiritual leader and shepherd. I would not proceed any further without him having first hand PRIOR knowledge.
Next, I would talk with him (your student); reassure him that you are not going to take any action that he is not aware of, BUT TAKING NO ACTION IS NOT AN OPTION, as legally you are required to report. Also, remind him that he has the younger siblings to think about.
But, I WOULD NOT DO ANYTHING without my senior pastor directing and guiding.
I will continue to pray, please give an update if you can.
YOUTH MINISTRY VETERAN #3:
When addressing the young man (the 18 year old), I would try to encourage him to contact the DCS while I am there with him to make that call and offer any assistance and support he may need. But I would also tell him that if he does not, I will have to. I would explain that under law I have no option and as a person who loves him and cares for him, I have an obligation morally and ethically.
From the limited exposure I have had, regarding a situation I had, it is not up to us as Òmandatory reportersÓ to necessarily validate our information. That is the role of the DCS. If we delay, it could not only lead to a harmful situation for the student but for ourselves. I'm not suggesting being flippant or irresponsible, but if we have a legitimate concern, we need to talk with the student involved as suggested above and report it. Time is critical in these moments and we canÕt wait too long to actÉnot only for this young man but also for his siblings.
YOUTH MINISTRY VETERAN #4
My concern would be for the younger siblings, if the abuse is happening to the older what would stop the dad from doing it to the younger. A very upfront conversation has to take place with the 18 year old to find out exactly whatÕs going on in the house. From there, involve the authorities and let them make the decision on what to do and how to handle the situation.
It is a delicate situation but still needs to be handled head on for the sake of the children in the house.
So, there you have it Jean – four youth ministers saying pretty much the same thing.
Danette Matty, Youth Worker Relations
The Source for Youth Ministry
Jonathan McKee is the author of over twenty books including the brand new The Bullying Breakthrough; The Teen’s Guide to Social Media & Mobile Devices; If I Had a Parenting Do Over; and the Amazon Best Seller - The Guy's Guide to God, Girls and the Phone in Your Pocket. He speaks to parents and leaders worldwide, all while providing free resources for youth workers on TheSource4YM.com. Jonathan, his wife Lori, and their three kids live in California.