Anna Groff is Executive Director of Dove’s Nest. She lives in Tucson, Arizona, and attends Shalom Mennonite Fellowship.
Some churches establish a protection policy to help ensure safety for the congregation’s children and youth. In addition to protecting children, we encourage churches to be aware of the need for measures to ensure the safety of all vulnerable persons, including—but not limited to—children and adults with disabilities and the elderly. Having a clearly defined plan for responding to any concern that arises enables people to act responsibly and appropriately during confusing and emotional situations.
One study of more than 50,000 children in a Midwest city tracked reported abuse in children registered in school programs. A history of abuse was 3.4 times more common among children with special learning needs than among other children. Children with intellectual disabilities were at even higher risk for abuse (Sullivan and Knutson, 2000).
According to the World Health Organization, children with mental or intellectual impairments appear to be among the most vulnerable, with 4.6 times the risk of sexual violence, among other types of abuse, than their nondisabled peers.
Adults with disabilities are also vulnerable and more likely to experience abuse. According to one study, among adults who have developmental disabilities, as many as 83% of the females and 32% of the males are victims of sexual assault (Johnson and Sigler 2000). One way churches can take preventive action is to include language about adults with disabilities in their protection policies.
Experts call the relationship between disabilities and abuse bidirectional, meaning that, in some cases, abuse causes disability (for example, shaken baby syndrome), and disability increases the risk for victimization (Sobsey 2002).
This unfortunate reality provides a unique opportunity for churches to proactively serve. Churches can work to support young families in their congregation and community. “Through food and clothing pantries, rental and utility assistance, job training, childcare, [and] medical clinics, we can help families in poverty to keep from sinking into neglect and abuse,” writes Jeanette Harder in her book, Let the Children Come: Preparing Faith Communities to End Child Abuse and Neglect (Herald Press, 2010).
In addition, as part of working toward inclusion of people with disabilities and protection of vulnerable individuals, churches can find ways to support the parents of children with disabilities through support groups, respite care, offering resources, and more.
Visit Dove’s Nest for resources to help you develop and implement a protection policy in your congregation. The mission of Dove’s Nest is to empower and equip faith communities to keep children, youth, and all vulnerable people safe in their homes, churches, and communities.
Resources from others
The Winter 2016 issue of Breaking Barriers, the newsletter of the collaborative disability ministry of the Christian Reformed Church in North America and the Reformed Church in America, includes several stories from people who have personal experience with this topic.