A couple of weeks ago, I got an email from a young teacher at a missionary-run school. She was hearing from local children attending the school about abuse they were suffering by their parents at home. One of the older children had written detailed reports of the abuse, and even had photographic evidence.
When this teacher approached the expat school authorities with this information, she was told that the school was aware of the situation, and she didn’t need to worry about it. She was told that children are prone to exaggeration and shouldn’t be believed. She was told that she was too young to truly understand what she was seeing, and that with age would come perspective.
Fortunately, extended family members stepped in to bring the children to safety, but the teacher was left wondering what in the world she should do about the school’s lack of response to her reports.
The scenario we’re examining here has two big questions to consider.
- How should expats and expat institutions handle child safety?
- How can expats interact with local communities around issues of child safety?
Here are three things we can do to move expat institutions toward good health around child safety. (There are sure to be more, so don’t be shy about suggesting more ideas in the comments!)
First, know that child abuse exists in every culture, even missionary culture.
It exists among nationals. It exists among missionaries. Child abuse exists on the mission field. Too often, it flourishes on the mission field, because we don’t want to see what we’re seeing. We are too nice. Too forgiving. Too accepting of deceitful charm. Too willing to accept explanations and excuses.
Jesus had some pretty stern things to say about millstones and deepest parts of the sea, when it comes to harming children. The heart of the gospel is loving and serving “the least of these.” We can’t abandon that, even when it’s personally and culturally difficult.
We must be aware, be alert, and be willing to be heart-broken for victims so we can be part of safety and healing.
Second, investigate the expat institutions you engage with.
What is the child safety policy of the school your child attends? What is the child safety policy of the church you are planting? What is the child safety policy of the mission organization you’re a part of? What kind of training is required with regard to child safety? How will the organization respond if child abuse is reported? Who checks to see if child safety policies are being followed? Where is the accountability in the system? If your school, church, or organization has no child safety policy, don’t rest until there is one. Check the Child Safety & Protection Network for best-practices on child safety.
Third, know where to look for help when you need it.
When we are faced with child abuse within the expat community, there are (or should be) agreed-upon procedural standards that guide a community through the aftermath. We can call on resources like the Child Safety & Protection Network, or GRACE. We can make a report to ACSI if the school is ACSI accredited, or a responsible mission board. We can even report child abuse overseas to home-side agencies like the FBI. Don’t forget that your local embassy or high commission is a resource when it comes to reporting criminal activities.
As I was thinking about the second question, how expats can interact with local communities around child safety, I felt a bit lost. So I called up my friend Dieula Previlon and asked for her input. Dieula is a native of Haiti. She lives in the Dallas area with her husband and sons, where she is Associate Pastor at Redeemer Evangelical Covenant Church, an instructor and counselor at Collin Community Community College, and CEO and founder of ElevateHer International.
I figured if Dieula didn’t know what to do, we should all just pack up and go home. But fortunately, she knew. I took copious notes while we were on the phone, and here is what she says.
Dieula says she’s seen many young missionaries burn out and be disappointed because they couldn’t make the difference they’d hoped to make. She said you have to be willing to play a long game, within the structure of the local culture, in order to make a big difference.
“You can’t go in fighting,” says Dieula. “You have to work within the community. You have to befriend the elders of the community and local church leaders.”
“Listen,” she said. “Ask questions. Play the dumb card. Say ‘I don’t understand.’ Participate in the culture. Make a fool of yourself. Respond with respect: ‘Your children are so well-mannered.’”
She suggested that one practical step the school might make in this particular scenario is offering parenting classes that could direct parents toward culturally-appropriate expressions of God’s love within families.
This article is not an exhaustive treatment of the problem of child abuse, just a conversation starter. So here we go:
What are your thoughts and feelings in response to this topic of child safety?
What has been your experience with child safety issues overseas?
Where have you found help and support that could be useful resources to others?
How have you found culturally-appropriate ways to bring love into family life in local communities?
How have local communities helped you to bring love into your own family life?