Protecting God's Children for Adults
Print What Is a "Concern" That I Should Communicate?
Step 5 of the Plan to Protect God’s Children is to “Communicate your Concerns.” The intent of this step is to raise awareness about two different issues. The first issue is our responsibility—legal and moral—to report to state child protection services our suspicions that a child is being or has been abused. The rule is simple—REPORT! In many states the law requires every adult to report suspected abuse. In some states only those people with specific relationships to children such as teachers, day care workers, physicians, law enforcement officers, etc. are mandated to report, but everyone else is allowed to report. The bishops, through the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People have taken a proactive stance on reporting suspected abuse.[i]
Although reporting the suspected abuse of a child is never easy, the standard is simple. A reasonable suspicion that a child is at risk of harm or is being harmed is enough to warrant a report. The state child protection services will determine whether your suspicion is sufficient to proceed with an investigation. The important thing is to remember that the responsibility for assessing the validity or sufficiency of a suspicion that a child is being abused belongs to the state child protection services agency. It is not your job to make the assessment or to investigate the suspicion before reporting. The responsibility is to report when it is suspected that a child needs protection.
However, that is only one part of Step 5. The second aspect of this Step is to communicate your observations about the behavior of any adult that gives rise to your concern or seems inappropriate. Communicating a concern is not an accusation nor is it a report of suspected abuse of a child. It is a conversation that addresses behavioral characteristics and actions that indicate that someone might be a potential risk of harm to children.
In three previous articles we have provided tools to help you have the conversations to communicate concerns in the most positive and effective way. Those articles are available in the VIRTUS®Protecting God’s Children™ for Adults online archives.[ii]
The question is, however, what constitutes a “concern?” Simply put, a concern is anything that you observe that gives you an uneasy feeling. The VIRTUS program defines concerns as:
Situations that give rise to uneasiness, uncertainty, apprehension, or an anxious state of mind. Concerns arise when a person is troubled by an observation that may affect the welfare or happiness of someone.[iii]
Since the initial presentations of the Protecting God’s Children™ for Adults program, participants have identified several types of “concerns” that should be communicated. Here are some examples of situations that warrant communicating a concern—and suggestions of ways to respond to the concern with solutions to these issues.
A teacher who covers her new solid glass classroom door with artwork.
Recommended Response:When confronted by the principal, the teacher justified her actions by pointing out that the students were constantly being distracted by people walking in the halls or coming up to the door to look in. The Principal worked with the teacher to find a solution to the distraction problems she was having and reminded her that the point of the solid glass door was openness and safety—for both the children and the teachers.
Your teen comes home from work at the Rectory and says that one of the priests is acting strange. Nothing physical, just hanging around and making her uncomfortable. He made her feel particularly uncomfortable when he hid and scared the child as she left the office to get something from another room.
Recommended Response:Communicate your concerns. Talk with the pastor or the priest involved and let him know that his behavior left the child feeling uncomfortable. If he changes his behavior then the message got through. If not, you must report him to the Vicar for Clergy or the Chancellor of the Diocese.
Be sure to tell your teen that you are taking these actions—even if he or she does not want you to intervene. Teens need to know that concerns about being embarrassed or a fear that someone will think that their concern is an accusation is not reason enough to avoid comment to the appropriate people or risk that it will continue.
At a youth retreat kicking off the beginning the year, the Youth Minister has planned an icebreaker activity to help the group come together and get to know each other better. The purpose of the retreat is to help the young people build their new group and to plan the year.
Parent sponsors are present and some of them have concerns about the icebreaker. The Youth Minister has asked the young people to form a circle. He then gives each one a toothpick to hold in his or her mouth. The object of the game is to pass a Lifesaver® candy from person to person using only the toothpicks. Some of the young people are clearly uncomfortable. They try to opt out of the activity but the Youth Minister requires everyone to participate in the circle.
The parents raise objections to the Youth Minister who discounts their concerns with the comment, “We have been doing this for years. There is nothing wrong with this activity.”
He proceeds with the icebreaker over the objections of the parents and many of the young people.
Recommended Response: Although there may be a tendency to “let it go” because the event is over and there was no apparent harm, it is important to communicate this concern to the Youth Minister’s supervisor. The fact that he was unwilling to listen to the concerns raised by both the parents and the young people should be a concern to everyone involved. The activity is questionable, but the bigger issue is the unwillingness of the Youth Minister to consider that something he was doing was inappropriate or at least questionable.
While returning to her room after seeing her students off at the end of school, the teacher noticed that there was an unfamiliar woman in the school library. The school is supposed to be closed to outsiders after the last bell, and the teacher is concerned.
Recommended Response: The teacher went to the principal’s office immediately and reported her concern. Then she and the principal returned to the library where the principal identified the visitor as someone who had requested permission to do some research in the school library.
As a Religious Education Director you have a habit of dropping in on every class for a moment each week. You notice that, for three weeks in a row in the four-year-old class, the teacher has allowed the same child to sit in her lap and turn the pages during story time. In the past, the teacher made sure that a different child got this privilege each week. Now, there was only one who had the opportunity to turn pages each week.
Recommended Response: Talk with the teacher about what you have observed and ask her what’s going on. If, for example, the reason has to do with the teacher’s perception that the child needs some special attention, find out why and help the teacher devise another way to provide support without raising concerns.
Communicating our concerns, as Dr. Finkelhor[iv] says, is perhaps the most difficult of all the steps. It requires us to let go of our own apprehensions about the reactions of others and the possibility that they will be offended. However, having the courage to speak up and address situations and issues that give rise to uneasiness, uncertainty, apprehension, or an anxious state of mind is an important part of creating a safe environment for all God’s children.