Question: I volunteer with the children’s ministry at my church, and want to make sure I’m doing the right thing if I ever suspect abuse or neglect. Can you summarize Illinois’ reporting laws, especially how they pertain to churches and ministries?
Answer: Considering the prevalence of childhood abuse and neglect, your questions are both timely and important. Illinois cases of child abuse and neglect increased 11% from 2015 to 2017. Reportable abuse includes physical abuse, sexual abuse, and the neglect of children under the age of 18.
All professional staff in the church (including, but not limited to, pastors, child care workers, teachers, and coaches) are considered legally mandated reporters of child abuse in Illinois. Furthermore, as Christians dedicated to the welfare of children, I believe we all have an ethical and moral responsibility (whether legally mandated or not) to protect children.
One question I often hear is “What do I do if I suspect, but am unsure if a child is being abused?” As counselors working with children, our motto is that it’s always best to err on the side of caution when a child’s safety is concerned. Is the system perfect? No, of course not. But the imperfection of the system is no reason to fail to report suspected abuse.
The 2019 edition of Illinois’ Manual for Mandated Reporters advises that protecting children is the responsibility of the entire community, and that the law provides anyone may make a report to the hotline. The manual is clearly written and helpful in explaining the parameters of mandated reporting of child abuse. Every church should have an accessible and well-visited copy. A downloadable version is available at the Department of Child and Family Services’ website: www2.illinois.org/dcfs.
We should all be well aware that child abuse also occurs within the church. Therefore, the church is where prevention must begin. Hiring church workers should be dependent on a potential employee passing a thorough background check, including fingerprinting. Are background checks always effective in screening out all potential threats to children? No, not always, but it is one effective tool we have in helping safeguard children against abuse. For further suggestions, go to IBSA.org/Protect.
Mark McCormick is director of clinic operations for Illinois Baptist Children’s Home and Family Services.