Editor’s Note: April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month.
IN THE AFTERMATH of the Houston Chronicle’s explosive investigative report about sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), leaders at all levels are being urged to get serious about screening and training paid staff and volunteers, as well as providing opportunities for abuse-related education and conversations.
Over the past three decades, well-publicized scandals in the Catholic Church and Boy Scouts led many charitable and service organizations to tighten access by child predators. These actions resulted in Protestant churches becoming the last frontier for crimes against children.
Derek Brown, executive director of Arkansas Baptist Children’s Homes and Family Services, welcomes the SBC’s efforts to make needed changes.
“Protecting children from strangers is necessary but far from sufficient for preventing abuse,” he said. “Most of the time, offenders are much closer than we realize because they are experts at gaining and exploiting trust.”
From her modest perch on Main Street in downtown Little Rock, Elizabeth Pulley oversees statewide efforts to coordinate services for children and families who have experienced abuse of any kind. Pulley serves as the executive director of Children’s Advocacy Centers of Arkansas (CAC), the administrative chapter that contains 17 regional offices, which operate under a variety of names.
With more than 30,000 calls to the statewide abuse reporting hotline last year, and more than 5,000 children seen at the various Arkansas centers, Pulley is keenly aware of the need for increased awareness and prevention
The regional offices provide a unique collaborative setting in which interdisciplinary teams focus on helping children who have been identified as likely victims of abuse. These teams include mental health counselors, forensic investigators, nurses, law enforcement personnel, and child advocates.
While “stranger danger” has become something of a mantra in recent years, Pulley stresses that “90 percent of the time, abuse happens at the hands of people the kids know.”
She adds that the “not normal” is normal for a lot of kids. “They often don’t know something is wrong until someone tells them.”
In the CAC offices throughout the state, children’s handprints bear evidence of the thousands who have been served in some way. But for Pulley, each set of handprints – some of them tiny – reminds her of the thousands of cases in which abuse goes unreported. She believes churches can play a significant role
in changing the culture of abuse.
“One of the most important things a church can do is to talk about the reality of abuse,” she said. “By creating educational opportunities, church leaders can help their members recognize the signs of abuse and learn how to report it.”
The CAC currently has seven satellite centers in rural communities. These centers operate with limited hours and staff, but Pulley understands the need for such safe places in smaller communities. Her vision for the advocacy centers includes the addition of service dogs as well as mobile units for underserved areas.
Rex Horne, former Arkansas Baptist pastor and president of Ouachita Baptist University, serves on the CAC Advisory Council. He shares Pulley’s sense of urgency and passion for the services they provide.
“I am burdened that we have senseless and sinful child abuse in every community in our state,” Horne said. “I thank God for the women and men in our centers. They defend, protect and advocate for the most vulnerable and voice-less children.”
Horne encourages churches to connect with their local CAC to learn of the many resources available for awareness, education and equipping.
Whether in the church or community at large, leaders can find common ground when it comes to this issue.
“We want to reach every single kid who has suffered abuse,” Pulley said. “We don’t want any child to not have access to services.”
If you know of or suspect abuse of a child, please call the Arkansas Child Abuse Hotline at 844-SAVE-A-CHILD. All calls are confidential.
Garrick D. Conner is a licensed marriage and family therapist, licensed professional counselor and ordained minister. He serves as discipleship pastor at Park Hill Baptist Church in North Little Rock.
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