Dealing With Abuse Overseas is Complicated

What struck me the most were her lifeless eyes. Without emotion, the young teenager related to me disturbing descriptions of abuse in her home. Her father would verbally assault her and yank her hair. He would beat and kick her mother, locking her out of their bedroom for hours.

My horror quickly turned to despair. As a teacher, I knew about mandatory reporting of abuse. But this was not the United States. I had no one to report to.


Amid the wreckage of abuse revealed in recent years, we can rejoice that many organizations now have their eyes wide open. New protocols. New safety standards. Tough policies. If you are serving overseas, hopefully your organization has already required all staff to complete child protection training. (If not, stop what you are doing right now and implore your leadership to get on the ball with this. Right now. Don’t wait. And keep nagging until it happens.)

In developed countries, there is no longer any room for excuses. Basic child safety procedures should be routine: Screen all workers. An adult should never be alone with a child. Doors and curtains should be left open. Workers should be trained to write incident reports. All signs of abuse should immediately be reported to authorities.

Unfortunately, in many countries, this is not so simple. And that’s what we need to talk about.

Standard child safety training (as important as it is), does not take into account the complications of life in a developing country. When I say I had no one to report to in my opening story, that’s exactly what I meant. I was living in a country where Child Protective Services did not exist. Beating a child or a wife was not only socially acceptable, it was ordinary. If I had gone to the police, they would have laughed at me. So what is there to do in this kind of situation? 

Or, let’s say you are in a position to hire or train children’s workers. What should you do if you live in a country that doesn’t do background checks? Or in a place where bribes are so common that you know you can’t trust the system? 

Or, what if you are in over your head with a suicidal or self-harming teenager? You know the protocol should be to pass her on to a professional, yet you are living in a location where there are no mental health professionals available to help. Maybe an ex-pat, English-speaking, or wealthy teenager might find hope in a telehealth option, but that’s not possible for the kid you are working with. What do you do?

I’m not an expert on these kinds of agonizing situations, although I faced them many times in my work overseas as a youth leader, chaplain, teacher, and principal. I had to document the injuries inflicted on a child by his father. My husband and I were called in the middle of the night by the mom of a teen attempting suicide. Not because we were experts, but because there was no one else.

I believe we need to do some hard thinking and praying in these circumstances, preferably in advance. We need help and advice from those who have gone before us so that we are not caught off guard. 

I wish I could say that my husband and I always did the right thing. But we tried the best we could, and we learned many things along the way. Here are a few:

  • In the absence of background checks, we asked for a reference from a pastor or a community leader. It wasn’t a perfect system, but it helped.
  • We did what we could to enter into families’ lives. We discovered that oftentimes abusive parenting happened not because the parents were evil, but because they knew no other way. When given the option of counseling and parenting advice, they often were willing to receive it. 
  • We educated ourselves. We learned about self-harm, trauma, and eating disorders. And if we couldn’t refer a student to a mental health professional, we could at least get a medical doctor involved. 

If you are looking for more resources on this subject, you can start right here at A Life Overseas:

One thing we get terribly wrong in our response to abuse. And one way to get it right. 

Ask a counselor: What about child abuse? 

Sexual Abuse on the Mission Field and the follow up Telling My Story: Sexual Abuse on the Mission Field

Here are some helpful organizations that can provide support, resources, and training:

There are no easy answers here, and this article is just the beginning of the discussion. But I believe that together, we can work for positive change. So I invite you into the conversation. How have you dealt with abuse when serving overseas? What resources would you suggest? What other factors do we need to consider? 

A Prayer of Repentance


To the women and girls of New Tribes Mission*

Lord, we repent for the sins against children. We repent for having ears that were deaf and eyes that were blind. We repent for the loss of innocence and beauty – things that were stolen from children molested in the dark of night. We weep for the damage to body, mind, and soul that these children, now women, sustained. We mourn for what was taken from them.

Lord, we repent for systems that allowed this to happen. We cry out for justice and we beg for healing for those whose lives bear the scars of abuse.

We pledge to never let this happen again. We commit to screening, to predeparture counseling, to hiring professionals that are trained to see warning signs. We commit to rigorous systems of accountability, to immediately believing the child who comes to us, to facing uncomfortable truth. We commit to changing systems that perpetuate abuse, to supporting victims throughout their lives, to holding and healing hurt children.

We commit to having our eyes wide open to abuse and injustice in all its forms, to having ears that hear beyond mere words. We commit to loving truth and hating and exposing lies. We commit to the hard work of change.

We confess and repent that we have viewed “ministry” as a god, as an idol that must be broken; that we have upheld the reputation of men and women and ministry as more important than the protection of children.

We beg you to pour your love and grace over the wounded ones. Honor their courage. Honor their humility. Honor their grace.

We repent. We confess. We fall on our knees before you in humility. 

May we be people who do justly, who love mercy, who walk humbly. May we be people whose love for God extends first to our children in holy honor and protection.

Lord, we repent. Lord, please forgive. Hear our prayer oh Lord. 

Author’s note: Like many of you, I read the story and watched short video clips about the abuse of children through New Tribes Mission. Like many of you, I was overcome with grief and anger. This is my response.

For articles from this community on abuse and responding to abuse please click here.

*Disclaimer: The author has no connection either from the past or present with New Tribes Mission or Ethnos360.

One thing we get terribly wrong in our response to abuse. And one way to get it right.

Someone alleges abuse.

Someone in power rushes to hush or silence the accuser, sometimes even using Scriptures or “biblical principles” as the gag.

And it’s so wrong.

It’s poison, offered as cure, both to the victim and those close by.

But there’s an idea I’ve been developing that just might be an antidote. At least it has been for some, inoculating them and giving them words. And words are powerful.

I call it The Three Spheres of Offense, and when a church or organization forgets about these three spheres, it’s nearly impossible to respond to allegations of abuse in a healthy way.

Originally, two things made me nervous to write this article: 1) These issues deal with very painful realities, both mine and others, and 2) The ideas in The Three Spheres seem so simplistic.

But here we are.

About a month ago, I made a Facebook Live video on this topic, and whatever uncertainty I had about the importance of this message vanished. The responses and private messages I received were real, they were honest, and they were empowering. So here it is:

Basically, whenever there is abuse, there is one action (or one series of actions), but there are three impacts. In other words, for every offense, there are three distinct entities that endure the offense. Those entities occupy the three spheres.

When a church or an organization forgets these three distinct spheres, it can’t respond to the accuser/survivor correctly.

You see, the entity within each sphere has a God-given right to respond to the perpetrator.

  • The offense against God is sin, and God retains the right to respond to that offense.
  • The offense against the victim is abuse or harm, and the victim has a God-given right to respond.
  • The offense against the community or society is a crime, and society has a God-given right to prosecute and adjudicate.

This is the oft-forgotten sphere.

We believe, as a community, that some behavior is wrong. As a society, we’ve decided that this type of action is harmful to us collectively, and that regardless of what the victim wants, the prosecutor gets to choose to prosecute, and if he or she so chooses, they are a representative of the offended society. That’s how we get “The People of the State of Illinois vs. John Doe.” Or “The United States of America vs. John Doe.”


Stop the Robbing
When a church or ministry forgets that the society at large has a right to respond, or when an organization hides information from authorities, or shelters abusers, we slap our communities in the face. We rob them of their right to respond.

Maybe God’s forgiven the perpetrator and they’re now doing fantastic ministry. Great.

Maybe the survivor’s forgiven the perpetrator and has been totally healed of all damage and never even thinks about it. OK, fine.

But that’s not the end of the story: Society still gets to respond. No matter what the church leadership thinks, no matter how “rehabilitated” the abuser seems, no matter how repentant and contrite, society still gets to respond.

And when a community finds out that we’ve hidden abuse, they rightfully despise us, and we look like fools. Because we are fools.

When a church or ministry forgets the third sphere, hiding and “forgiving” unilaterally, it does massive damage to society, which is not a “loving your neighbor” thing to do. At all.


Cross-Cultural Considerations
What if you’re living abroad, where reporting abuse is often more complicated? What if the offender might face harsher punishment than he or she would in their passport country? What if you don’t think your host country has an adequate justice system?

These are crucial things to consider.

But we must be very careful here. What are we saying if we hide an American’s crimes from the local government when the crimes were committed in our host country? What if the victims are citizens of our host country?

Are we saying that we believe in following the law so long as we agree with it? Are we denying the local government the right to adjudicate their own way?

We are in danger here of sending a damning and very disrespectful message: “our people” deserve better than “their people.” Would we report similar behavior to local authorities if it were committed by a national?

If we’re not careful, our hubris will show, with damaging results. And once again we must ask: are we acting in a loving, Christ-like manner?


While You’re Here
I’ve written some about how my parents responded when I told them that I had been abused. You can read that article here. Here are some of the main points:

1. The idea that a person is innocent until proven guilty is great and helpful and very important in a court of law. It is not so great in churches or organizations.

If the gut response of the church or organization is to defend the accused, if that’s the default setting, there’s a very real risk that the least powerful, most marginalized, most hurting, people will be ignored.

Again, “innocent until proven guilty” is a solid principle for criminal courtrooms, but it really sucks in living rooms and board rooms.

2. False accusations are much less common than true allegations. If you think that the majority of abuse allegations are concocted, you’re wrong.

3. Allegations are often unbelievable. Abusers are often known and usually respected. Unfortunately, that’s how the abuse goes on for so long. It’s not typically the outlying weirdo that everyone avoids, it’s a person with authority and power that people want to love and protect. It’s someone who, if he or she “falls,” would leave a hole in the organization or ministry.


More Like Christ
Too often, in a rush to defend the accused, we’re not much like Christ. We need to listen to the accusers, the victims, the survivors.

That does not mean that we throw the accused under the bus. It just means that our posture towards the victim is one of listening and hearing and believing, not disbelief, distance, and doubt.

I pray that our posture would be Christ-like, standing in between the powerful and the abused. Too often, we flip that on its head, landing on the side of the powerful person who already has a voice, who already has the stage. We need to bend down, to be next to the person who is saying, “I’m hurting.”

This is my prayer.

— Jonathan Trotter


Sexual Abuse on the Mission Field

Telling my Story: Sexual Abuse on the Mission Field

Ask a Counselor: What about child abuse?


Here’s the original video where I discussed these ideas: