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‘Always alert’ to protect God’s children

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Alert the media.

He’s alert and responsive.

Security has placed us on high alert.

Stay alert while driving.

We were alerted of the danger.

An alert neighbor called authorities.

April being Child Abuse Prevention Month gives us a chance to review our “alert” literacy. By now, in our 15th year of compliance with the U.S. bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, we in the archdiocese are familiar with the horrific nature of child sex abuse and of abusers. We know the predator seeks out children. We know we can help protect children by requiring fingerprinting and Virtus training — an awareness and prevention program on child sexual abuse — of adults who have access to children at archdiocesan entities.

We know that by requiring signed Pledges to Promote Safe Environment from these same people, we can be very clear as to the expectations, as well as acceptable and unacceptable behavior, from those around children.

However, we sometimes have difficulty with the gray areas. These are often boundary issues. Identifying and addressing boundary issues is paramount to intervening before abuse happens, because something else we know is that child sex abuse is a preventable crime.

In the Archdiocese of Miami, all employees and those volunteers with access to children and/or vulnerable adults must attend a live Virtus training session where they learn the five-step plan to protect the most vulnerable among us. Step one gives us warning signs. Some of these include:

  • discourages other adults from participating or monitoring;
  • always wants to be alone with young people;
  • is more excited to be with children than adults;
  • thinks the rules do not apply to him/her;
  • allows young people to engage in activities their parents would not allow.

Warning signs are also examples of boundary issues. While these warning signs are commonly displayed by predators, sometimes other well-meaning adults engage in these behaviors as well. So, to be clear, these are not exclusively warning signs of a predator, but of inappropriate behavior/boundary issues.

Consider this: What is the difference between the behavior of a predator in the grooming process and that of a well-meaning teacher playing favorites? Nothing. The difference is in the motive. In both scenarios, however, the behavior needs to be addressed.

Undoubtedly you are thinking, if it is a well-meaning teacher whom we do not suspect, why do we need to address it? There are several reasons. Treating a child differently, even in a positive way, lets the child know this behavior is acceptable and desensitizes the child to the grooming behavior of a predator. It also conditions a community (faculty, staff, parents) to view the inappropriate behavior as acceptable, leaving them less likely to recognize the behavior when it comes from a predator.

The behavior is also on display for a predator to see. (With 4 percent of the population abusing and another 2 percent thinking about it, they are watching!) This means a predator sees the behavior as a lapse in the protection of children, and that community as a perfect place where they can gain the access and trust they need to get close to children.

All adults are in a great position to witness and identify boundary issues or warning signs around children, although they can be hard to define. It’s a lot like common sense: The meaning can be so different to each of us that it is more truthful to say there is no such thing as common sense. So the Pledge to Promote Safe Environment is a good place to start. The employee pledge and the volunteer pledge are both posted here

From there, consider Step 5 of the Virtus plan, “communicate your concerns.” With a boundary issue, you would communicate the concern through the chain of command at your entity. If it’s a school, speak to the principal. If it’s a parish religious education program, speak to the director of religious education or the pastor. If it’s an afterschool sporting event, speak to the athletic director for the program or recreation department. Remember you are only communicating a concern. You are not accusing anyone of abuse.

Should your boundary issue/warning sign involve a family member, you should call the Department of Children and Families, DCF. Any time your concern rises to the level of suspicion of abuse, whether at a school, parish, home, organized sports, or other extracurricular program, your communication must go directly to the legal authorities: DCF at 1-800-96ABUSE. This is the first call. Then we ask that you notify the archdiocese at 1-866-80-ABUSE so that we may cooperate with the investigation.

Of course, the goal is to be “alert” to the warning signs and to respond before abuse happens. The decision to communicate your concerns can be very difficult. Just remember to keep the child’s best interest at the center of your thought process.

Recently, Mary Ross Agosta, archdiocesan director of Communications and Safe Environment, shared these same thoughts with pastors, and she created a business card for them to carry at all times. It fine tunes (that’s a car reference and you will see why in a second) the process to “AAA” — and I don’t mean a tow truck. (That was her joke, too.) So, in their wallets right behind their driver’s license and car insurance card, you will find the following:

AAA Approach to Safety

  • Alert DCF/Law Enforcement, 1-800-96-ABUSE (1-800-962-2873)
  • Alert Archdiocese of Miami, 305-762-1043
  • Alert audiences, faculty/staff, parents, parishioners

Because safety is all our concern.

Related article: FAQs on Virtus training.

Comments from readers

Sr. Maria Elena Larrea, osf - 04/19/2017 04:02 PM
Thank you Jan for all your hard work and dedication. Your support and commitment to keep our children and vulnerable adults safe speaks volumen of who you are. May God continues blessing you and your entire team.
St. Patrick School - 04/19/2017 09:50 AM
We commend you for the hard work, dedication, and passion that you put into keeping our children safe. Unfortunately, this world is consumed with those who prey on the weak - most especially children. If it takes a village to raise a child, it too takes a village to keep them safe. May God bless you and your labor of love.
Sister Lidia Lidia Valli - 04/17/2017 10:22 PM
Thank you, Jan for your dedication and your availability to help us and to be always available. May our Lord bless your hard work with the cooperation of all of us.
Lisa Pinto - 04/17/2017 08:54 PM
Jan, excellent teaching, as always! If the 2% who are "thinking about it" can be stopped by a person "on alert" who identifies signs of inappropriate boundaries -- that's several million incidences prevented! May we take this to heart and pray for the alert disposition needed in order to act and intervene. Thank you for the work you do!
Lisellot Casasnovas - 04/17/2017 08:50 PM
Thank you for sharing with us and reminding us about these important issues.
BILL - 04/17/2017 01:18 PM
Jan: Your office is doing great work for the children and vulnerable adults in the Archdiocese of Miami. The Virtus program has educated thousands of adults about the warning signs to detect abuse. Thank you Bill Benson
Karen Gioia, LCSW - 04/17/2017 12:17 PM
In real estate one always hears the mantra, "location, location, location." In child sexual abuse prevention, our mantra must be, "Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries!" This article is a good reminder that we must all remain vigilant when it comes to observing and assessing appropriate boundaries,and stress this to our participants as well.
Dr. Carlos D. Coton - 04/17/2017 08:42 AM
This is a great perspective to address those "boundary and gray areas" that give everyone difficulty and indeed the Pledge is a great place to start. I incorporate this pledge in all my sessions to emphasize that volunteering, regardless of how little time it is done, cannot be taken lightly. As a related article mentions, if an event attracts children, it will attract predators. To be cognizant of this and aware of the boundaries is paramount in out continual protection of children and vulnerable adults. Wonderful and enlightening post-Easter reading!
David Gonzalez - 04/17/2017 08:27 AM
Very well said, we can never let our guard down. Predators of the vulnerable and children are always looking to exploit the weakest in our society. Thank you for your service to our children. Vivat Jesu!

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