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Child Abuse Investigator

Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div, M.S.A.

Number 233

She's aggressive, determined, professional...and if you abuse or neglect your children, she'll take them away from you. No, she's not your congregation's head antagonist. She's my wife.*

A Godly Mission
 
My wife is a Child Welfare Specialist for the State of Michigan. For the past decade she has been engaged in one of the most difficult, tearful and heart-wrenching vocations. Employed to oversee and protect children, her job entails risking her life to do all she can do within the legal limits of governmental regulation to investigate all accusations of neglect and abuse.
 
She routinely conducts intensive investigations with parents of the alleged victims. Trained and experienced in forensic investigative techniques, she is able to get virtually any information she needs out of just about anybody.
 
Pastors, counselors, therapists may not understand why in the urgency of an investigative process she doesn't just tell the alleged abusive parent, "It's OK. Just don't do it again." She can't--legally, morally or ethically. Besides, it just wouldn't be Christian.
 
Child Abuse: It's Very Real
 
Sometimes clergy and other concerned Christians can't understand why social service agencies are so unbending, so ruthless and so often "out to get them." When parents of abused children respond to the prospect that their abused or neglected child will be placed in foster care and their parental rights possibly terminated, they may turn to the church.
 
Often they will tell their story. It may make your heart sink. It may make you sympathize with their plight. It may make you may want to get on the phone right away and let that "evil social worker" "have it."
 
Before You Intervene...
 
No matter how righteous you might think such actions might be, don't do it. Why?
 
1) First, Consider Their Training And Experience
Overall, trained investigators such as my wife often have a great deal of training with child neglect and abuse. They have a "feel" for the mindset of such parents. They have specific training in how to recognize the bruises. They have sat at the feet of the nation's foremost forensic specialists to distinguish between what is accidental and what is inflicted.
 
They have not only seen the slides, watched the films and listened to the discussions of the various injuries. They've seen the injuries in real life happen to real children. A sampling of some of the hideous injuries regularly encountered include...
2) Consider Their Response
Child abuse investigators and other specialists are trained and conditioned to respond appropriately to a wide range of situations. In cases where a child's life and welfare is literally at risk, they have no choice but to be directive, insistent and assertive. After all, how would you feel if...
* You knew a child, whose older siblings were severely beaten, sexually abused, and sustained multiple injuries for which they were hospitalized, who was at significant risk for sustaining similar injuries themselves?
 
* You knew your inaction or inability to intervene resulted in the child's recent hospitalization with multiple skull fractures?
 
* You knew that that child was only 18 months old and would live with abusive parents until his or her eighteenth birthday unless you took action?
It's not hard to love someone who is "mean, nasty, directive, determined, and angry" who will take your children in a moment. It's really not! I give mine a hug every day!
3) Recognize You Don't Have All The Information
If you haven't done the investigation, forensically interviewed the parents or perpetrators, seen how the family really is outside of church and out of the view of religious leaders, and seen their confidential criminal records, you probably won't understand how extensive the abuse and/or neglect may have been.
 
Before you shed tears and put your heart out on your sleeve for the alleged perpetrator, think. Think hard...real hard. Just because you work for God doesn't mean you have the right to "butt in" and intervene.
 
You don't have all the information. And the little you do have is in nearly every case a very, very slanted and emotional one-sided story. When in doubt about a specific social worker, withhold your judgment .When in doubt, trust the investigators, the social workers and those entrusted to protect these children. Their job is not to ruin families. It's to protect children with the truth. So is yours!
4) Understand That You Won't Have Access To All The Information You Feel You Need To Make A Wise, Prudent Decision.
Confidentiality is the ultimate sign of professionalism. Outsiders such as pastors are not privy to the information gleaned from the investigation. Until made public through the respective courts, social workers simply can't give you the information you may desire and need to make your own independent assessment of guilt. They can't give you a history, details, names, circumstances or anything else.
This, of course, is a frustration to the social service workers, too. Since they are pledged to confidentiality, they legally can't provide information which would help support their side of the story. They can't talk with the press. They can't talk to you either. They are not trying to be difficult. They're being professional. Trust them!
 
Recently one Child Abuse Investigator was brutally killed in Michigan by an angry parent for refusing to reveal confidential information. Confidentiality is critical.
5) Never, Never, NEVER Volunteer Testify In Court On Behalf Of The Individual
The word "never" is not just a cute piece of advice, a flippant rubric for general practice, or an off-the-cuff guideline for ministry casuistry. It's an important piece of advice.
 
Never, never, never testify in court on behalf of the alleged perpetrator...unless subpoenaed to do so. (Given legal guidelines regarding clergy confidentiality, even if they do subpoena you you may not be able to testify. In such cases, consult your denomination's national headquarters and/or a lawyer of your own!)
 
Do you want to know why you should never testify in court? Here are some reasons.
First, the alleged perpetrator is using you. They think that judges, prosecutors and juries will be magically touched by your mesmerizing presence and be swayed to leniency. Justice simply doesn't work that way.
 
Second, unless you like to be shocked out of your wits in public don't even think of testifying. There are a multitude of  really compelling reasons the alleged perpetrators are in court. One major reason is because there is a compelling and perhaps overwhelming case against them.
 
Typically, actual pictures of the injuries, recorded and written testimonials, records of previous incidents (sometimes numerous), personal eye witness accounts, testimony by others, and interviews documenting the alleged perpetrators admission of their wrong doing are all presented.
 
Third, The evidence against the alleged perpetrator can be such as to be embarrassing. Depending on the standards of evidence allowed in the court--whether 51% certainty or 99% certainty--information will be revealed that may drastically alter your perception of the couple.
 
When all is said and done, those few pastors who do willingly testify almost universally walk away with major embarrassment. They just couldn't believe the extent of abuse by their members was possible. They just couldn't imagine how you could have hid all this from them. And the pastors thought the accused parents were "nice" Christian people!
 
Fourth, alleged perpetrators requesting a jury trial characteristically are simply digging their own grave deeper. Though on the surface it appears to be a signal that they know they can win in court, it's really a desperate effort.
 
Requesting a jury trial in the State of Michigan, for example, almost certainly guarantees conviction. The standard of evidence used, Federal and state laws, the thoroughness of the investigative process, et al have such a powerful, cumulative effect. Presented in court, these professionals are often able to present a very, very strong case against the accused. Those in the courtroom will be aghast in amazement at all the perpetrators have done.
 
By asking the pastor to testify publicly on their behalf, the alleged perpetrators appeal to your sense of helping the underdog. Beware. They are going to make fools of you in court as they will of themselves. Instead of having chosen to deal with the matter in a less public setting in presence of a magistrate and a select few others, they have opted to have their case heard in the open.
 
Jurors, hearing the testimony, will be simply awe-struck at the testimony, the evidence and the history and extent of the abuse. So will you! It will be the most memorable, embarrassing, and humiliating shock of your life.
 
Third, if you really want to know the truth read the court records on the proceedings. Court records are accessible to the public. If you really need to know, look at the records. By the same token, if you're in this deep, you're in trouble.
 
Fourth, it's simply foolish for you to be there. Instead, offer your sincere prayers for justice. Offer the alleged perpetrators time to meet with you in your office. Offer the alleged perpetrator genuine Christian support--even if convicted, but don't, don't, don't  ever testify!
 
Parents who abuse and neglect children will subject anyone to further neglect and abuse. Just because you wear a collar and they call you "Pastor" doesn't make a "hill of beans" of difference. Don't be a fool. Keep your ministry out of the witness stand. You belong in the pulpit.
6) Let God's Authorities Do Their Job.

In spite of the many various arguments, twists, and eloquent circumlocutions that can be presented relative to church and state issues, the Christian response is simple. Paul said,

"Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves." (Romans 13:1-2)

"Submit to them." This command applies to all pastors...including you. By doing so you and the worker form a basis for a God-pleasing reciprocal respect and trust.
7) Be Patient. Let The System Work.

Though the wheels of justice can turn slowly, wobble and get stuck in the mud, sooner or later the good guys win. Justice does get served. Though community standards, relative levels of abuse/neglect screening, aggressiveness of prosecutors, and judges' attitudes may vary, it is the cumbersome nature of the justice and social services system that keeps it operating within parameters of justice.

In the rare circumstance that an unfair or unjust investigation has been conducted, the justice system has many safety valves, too. Social service supervisors, agency directors, community leaders, community standards, state laws, attorneys, prosecutors and judges are just a few. In worst case scenarios parents facing loss of parental rights to their children can request a trial in front of their peers.

8) Don't Be Fooled By Media-Conditioned Perceptions

Sometimes our perception of justice is too-well shaped by a media focused on the spectacular, the out-of-the-ordinary, the exclusive, etc. The unfortunate side of this is that it tends to overlook the smooth, trustworthy and effective day-to-day workings of justice. The fact that the media can report a story about injustice and have it newsworthy is probably one of the better arguments indicating why we can trust the system. If it weren't news anymore, then there would be major problems.

Some Positive Suggestions
 
1) Be Supportive Of The Accused.
Support the alleged perpetrator(s) without enabling, condoning or giving the false impressions of support. Perpetrators perpetrate perpetually. They don't need your tears. They need directness, frankness and someone they can trust.
 
Surprisingly those who have had their children removed by the courts aren't always angered by the child abuse investigator who first confronted them. If they have been treated fairly, not mis-directed or misled, not lied to and respectfully treated with the truth, they can leave a courtroom with tears...but with respect for the abuse investigator. This is a godly model for pastors, too.
2) Be Supportive Of The Victims.
Child abuse affects virtually every single aspect of a victim's psyche. A child's perception of trust, safety, bonding and God are all distorted by abuse. One of the most tragic evidences of this is a young toddler who, after recovering from weeks or months of hospitalization following severe sexual and physical abuse from a parent, asks, "Where's my mommy? Where's my daddy?"
 
Pastors and others need to recognize that children such as these really don't have a good understanding of Christian love. Since they may often feel deserving of their abusive treatment, they don't know what grace is either. Let them see love, feel trust and talk freely as a child and learn and experience what it means to live in God's love. Most importantly, let them know and experience complete, no-holds-barred forgiveness. It's the best and most healthy lesson they can learn in their life-long recovery.
3) Become Aware Of Child Abuse Issues.
The incidence of child abuse appears to grow rapidly each year. Though millions of babies are aborted each year, the incidence is not declining. For some parents, terminating their lives is not enough. And neither is child abuse. Parents "living together without the benefit of marriage" and other societal factors seem to have only exacerbated the problem of abuse.
4) Don't Be Fooled.
Child abuse does not discriminate. It's in trailer parks, remote woods, middle-class neighborhoods, and in the most beautiful and elaborate homes. It's not just an issue of poverty, race, gender or religion.
 
Child abuse investigators go into homes of the very rich and the profoundly poor. Perhaps the most marked difference between rich and poor abusers is that the rich have greater resources by which to conceal and defend their wrongdoing.
5) Abuse Happens Among Christians.
Child abuse investigators go to Christian homes too. Sometimes they visit homes of pastors noted in their community for their "uncompromisingly clear witness," lauded for their "strong, magnetic leadership" or known by other indications of their "perfect" ministry.
 
(The above characteristics don't necessarily imply or suggest that all pastors with the characteristics abusers. Far from it. But those who are abusers have the best facade of some of the best pastoral characteristics!)
6) Become Familiar With Local Agencies.
Consider developing a healthy relationship with child welfare agencies. Typically they are in need of all kinds of resources, especially volunteers. Support groups, foster-care homes, and transporters are just a few of the many, many types of volunteer needs they may have.
7) Increase Congregational Awareness.
Child welfare issues can be an important ministry in any church. Start educating, preaching and working in ways to raise awareness of this important issue in your congregation. Workshops, seminars, Bible classes, sermon series and other special emphases revolving around child welfare-related issues are but some ways to bring the issue to the forefront of ministry.
8) Be Aware Of "Perfect" Christians.
The church is, perhaps, one of the best place for the development and maintenance of perfectionistic facades. Scott Peck calls those who maintain these facades "People of the Lie."
 
Christians are so often and easily fooled by the "wonderful so-and-so family." You've seen them. The parents do so much for the church and their kids are always so well-behaved. They attend every parenting class ever offered in the church. Sometimes they lead these classes.
9) Acknowledge Those Deceitful Facades.
Facades are impressive. Some of the most-loved and recognized famous television and movie personalities live a life totally different from their television image. Whether one considers Tim Allen  of "Home Improvement" Fame (Tim is plagued by drug addiction), the perfect father of "Father Knows Best" (he was an alcoholic), or a life-long alcoholic Dick Van Dyke singing for families and children in the family classic "Mary Poppins," facades deceive.
 
Facades are all around us. Some you can see, others you can't...until it's too late. Still others are hidden so well no one can tell. But its there. There are many possible indicators that people may be hiding behind a facade. Some may include...
* Those with a "too-good-to-be-true" Christianity.
* Those having children with "stellar" behavior. These children may not be behaving out of faith at all. Instead, their behavior may be driven by the fear of severe discipline or abuse.
* How are family members treated when they make a mistake? When they "let their hair down?" Is discipline appropriate?
10) Acknowledge Professional Facades
Certain professions seem to attract individuals with needs to be in control. Any profession in which image plays a major role is susceptible. Professions with a high competitive component can also attract controlling personalities. These may include the government leaders and officials, military and para-military occupations, public safety officers, corporate executives, administrators, individuals involved in occupations exacting a high degree of control, and sometimes pastors. This listing is by no means exhaustive.
 
Control needs can often be one of several factors identifying an abuser. These and other issues can sometimes be indicators that there's something more than meets the eye going on.
11) Don't Get Paranoid.
No one, including pastors, has the right to arbitrarily "butt in" and secretly stick their nose into people's private lives. We are not busy-bodies. We are not witch-hunters. We are not investigators. We are pastors. The highest standards of churchmanship demand we deal only with what is known...not what is suspected, rumored, gossiped, or conveyed second-hand. Simply carry on with an appropriate level of Christian discernment in your leadership.
12) Pray For Families And All Who Contribute To The Welfare of Children.
There are so many people involved in the support system for child welfare. Social workers, judges, court referees, agency directors and supervisors, foster care workers, foster parents, attorneys, friends of the court, adoption workers, home licensing specialists and therapists are just a small representation of all involved.
 
They need your regular, genuine, prayerful support. So do their ancillary agencies with which they work. Support social workers and agencies of all kinds. Your congregation's resources may be limited. Contact the various agencies and do whatever you can, whenever you can. At the very least, pray continually for them!
Finally...
 
Thank God for your local child abuse investigator. I know I do!
 
Thank God for everyone involved in this very special work of God in our society. Rejoice that they share in a very, very special area of ministry which is truly, truly Christian. Continually remind them of how important God esteems their ministry. James wrote to affirm the undeniable importance of this very special vocation. We can carry on that tradition.
"Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world." (James 1:27 NIV)
Thomas F. Fischer
* By the way, if any of you every happens to get the opportunity to meet my wife, she's the one with the big, friendly smile and warm approachability. She's also a great, loyal Christian friend and excellent social worker who is rightly proud of her work! :-)

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This page was revised on: Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:04:46 PM