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What should you do if you suspect child abuse?

Your ministry is fully invested in nurturing and growing the children entrusted to your care. You provide safe, clean facilities, and your loving staff cares for every young soul that walks through the door. Additionally, the policies and procedures are in place to protect them from any physical harm during the hours they spend with you.

For many children, your ministry might be their only safe haven against suffering. Every year an estimated six million children suffer some form of child abuse in the United States. Each day an average of four to seven children dies because of abuse or neglect.

You clearly understand the moral imperative to shield children from abuse. But do your staff members understand their legal obligations when they suspect that a child who is part of their ministry is being abused?

Here are six questions staff and leaders should ask if they suspect a child they work with is the victim of abuse.

How does my state define child abuse?

Each state has a different legal definition of what constitutes child abuse. Your church's legal advisor can provide this information to your staff.

Am I required to report suspected abuse?

Again, this is a matter of state law. In some states ministry workers are required to report suspected child abuse. In other states ministry workers are permitted, but not required to report abuse. In a few states, ministers fall under the pastoral privilege, which protects them from legal ramifications of not reporting abuse.

Can I provide proof of the suspected abuse?

Be sure to document any indicators of abuse. Common signs include unexplainable bruises, fractures, burns or facial injuries. Also watch for reoccurring injuries.

How should I report the suspected abuse?

This varies from state to state. Some laws require that child abuse reports be made within 24 hours. Others just ask for the reports to be made in a timely manner. Also determine what agency to whom you should direct the report. In some states it is a law enforcement agency. In other areas, state social service agencies receive child abuse reports.

Do I have to give my name?

Some church leaders can be reluctant to report abuse for fear that they can be held liable if the allegation turns out to be unfounded. In some states anonymous reports are allowed. And all 50 states provide limited immunity for reports if the allegations prove to be false.

What happens if I don't report suspected abuse?

Several risks are associated with not filing a report of suspected abuse which is later discovered. Anyone who is required to report abuse but does not faces a misdemeanor charge of criminal liability, which is punishable by a fine and jail time. Some states allow mandatory reporters to be punished through civil liability claims. In addition to the individual, the church as an entity can be held liable if suspected abuse is not reported.

For more resources on the topic of abuse prevention, please visit our Safety Toolkit.


This article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be construed as legal advice. Readers should use this article as a tool, along with best judgment and any terms or conditions that apply, to determine appropriate safety precautions for programs and activities.

All property and liability insurance coverages are provided by Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Company and are subject to conditions, coverage limits, limitations and exclusions. GuideStone Agency Services is an appointed agency of Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Company in Texas and Alabama.