One of the challenges of leading sessions of Protecting God’s Children for Adults is encouraging people to speak up and take action when observing something that raises concerns. It seems that many people find themselves on one end of the action spectrum. They either think the best thing is to do nothing and take care of their own children without “butting in,” or they become angry and hurl accusations at the one whose behavior raises concerns. Facilitators must encourage people to look carefully at a situation and consider the many possible actions available before taking the one that is appropriate to the circumstances and has the potential to make the biggest impact.
Attendees in our Virtus classes have different reactions when learning about the nature and scope of the problem of child sexual abuse. While parents aren’t the only attendees, some people come to the sessions annoyed that they have to be there. They feel they are doing all that can be done to protect their own children or the children in their purview. Most people are shocked to discover what it takes to create a safe environment for our children.
In our Virtus sessions, we work with participants to identify the potentially risky adult behaviors that indicate a person is a possible risk to children. We clarify those behaviors and talk about how they show up in real situations around us daily. When we discuss communicating our concerns, we invite them to consider that what may happen when we see these behaviors. Sometimes people gossip about the person or persons whose behavior gives concern. Sometimes people react fearfully and convince themselves that what they saw was probably innocent, that it couldn’t really be a warning sign.
Communicating concerns when we see them is a way of addressing the situation in a productive and effective manner. There are many less confrontational actions that people can take to interrupt or intervene in potentially risky situations. Each person must intervene in a way that is effective and appropriate for the circumstance and the persons involved.
When an adult’s behavior gives rise to a concern for safety, one of the actions available is to step in to the situation. A responsible, caring adult can intervene and insert himself or herself into the situation or activity in a way that simply diffuses any concern. For example, when an adult has isolated a child or small group of children, an observer can simply go join the activity and not take “no” for an answer if the lone adult tries to brush them off or exclude them.
Reminding everyone that the goal is safety for all and that is the reason for the action puts the emphasis on proper procedure and safety rather than accusation or threat. After stepping in, the caring adult will need to communicate any concerns either directly to the person and/or to a supervisor.
One of the societal norms that we must challenge to create safe environments is that it is “not our place” to manage someone else’s children. Some parents will take their own children out of a risky situation, but do nothing about the other children, thinking that those children’s parents are seeing the same thing they see and should be the ones to act on behalf of their own children. Creating safe environments calls us to be responsible adults for all the children in our care, whether we have children or not. That means that we do what it takes to remove all children from risky situations or thwart the intentions of the potentially risky adult involved, and then communicate the information to the appropriate party.
Speaking to the person whose behavior raises concerns or letting the supervisor know what you saw and why it is a concern are important tools for creating safe environments. Speaking up and stepping in, including all children in the actions you take promoting safety, and taking time to notice, acknowledge and appreciate the positive actions of other adults responding to concerns are all additional ways that we can act to promote safe environments.
Colleen Sulsberger is coordinator of the Office of Safe Environment for the Diocese of Sioux City.