What About the Most Vulnerable?

By Anna Groff

In addition to protecting children, churches ought to be aware of the need for safety for all vulnerable persons, including—but not limited to—children and adults with disabilities and the elderly.

Many studies point to the unfortunate truth that children with chronic medical conditions or disabilities are at increased risk for abuse and neglect.

One study of more than 50,000 children in a Midwest city started with children registered in school programs and then determined which children had been identified as having special needs and which children had a history of reported abuse. 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 even more at 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.

One way churches can take preventive action would be to include language about adults with disabilities in their protection policies. According to one 2000 study, among adults who have developmental disabilities, as many as 83% of the females and 32% of the males are the victims of sexual assault (Sigler, 2000).

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 place 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, 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.

In addition, as part of working toward inclusion of people with disabilities and protection of vulnerable individuals, churches can also find ways to support the parents of children with disabilities through support groups, respite care, offering resources, and more.

Dove's Nest mission is to empower and equip faith communities to keep children, youth, and all vulnerable people safe in their homes, churches, and communities. A first step faith communities can take toward preventing abuse and neglect is creating a protection policy. A written policy needs to be adopted as well as implemented and made accessible. Having a clearly defined plan for responding to any concern that arises enables people to act responsibly and appropriately during confusing and emotional situations.