By / Mar 24

Chelsea Sobolik welcomes Dr. Rick Morton, the Vice President of Engagement for Lifeline Children’s Services to discuss how the Russian invasion of Ukraine impacts orphans, vulnerable children, and families in the process of adopting. They discuss how the war harms vulnerable children, and ways the church can get involved in caring for vulnerable children. 

Guest Biography

As Vice President of Engagement, Rick Morton shepherds the Lifeline Children’s Services outreach to individual, church, and organizational ministry partners as well as the ministry’s commitment to publishing resources that aid families and churches in discipling orphans and vulnerable children. Holding both the Doctor of Philosophy and Master of Arts degrees in Christian Education from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Rick taught on the faculty of his alma mater as well as the faculties of Bryan College and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He also served local churches in Tennessee, Louisiana, and Mississippi. He is an accomplished writer and sought after speaker. Most notably, Rick is the co-author of the popular Orphanology: Awakening to Gospel-centered Adoption and Orphan Care and the author of KnowOrphans: Mobilizing the Church for Global Orphanology. Rick and his lovely wife Denise have been married for over 26 years, and they have 3 children, all of whom joined their family through international adoption from Ukraine. 

Resources from the Conversation


  • Dobbs Resource Page Prayer Guide | Right now, the Supreme Court is considering a major Mississippi abortion case called Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. The ERLC and other pro-life organizations filed an amicus brief in this case urging the Supreme Court to overturn the disatrous Roe v. Wade decision. Members of our team also joined pro-life advocates on the steps of the Supreme Court when oral arguments were heard last December. As we approach the Supreme Court’s final decision in June of this year, it’s important for Christians to pray for this landmark case and begin preparing our churches to serve vulnerable women and children in a potential post-Roe world. Download our free prayer guide at That’s
  • Dobbs Resource Page | Many Christians are aware that an important case about abortion is being decided at the Supreme Court this June. But for many, this case is confusing and wrapped in a lot of legal jargon. The ERLC wants to help with that, so we’ve created a resource page that will help you and your church understand what this case means, what could happen if Roe v. Wade is overturned, and how your church can prepare to serve vulnerable women and children in the aftermath. To learn more about the Dobbs case and how you can pray, visit That’s
By / Mar 23

With the beginning of Russian aggression, the entire population of Ukraine became vulnerable in an instant. An estimated 3.2 million people have fled the country as refugees and millions more are internally displaced seeking safety from Russian attacks. Among those, an estimated 200,000 orphans are infinitely more unshielded today than ever before.

Child welfare in Ukraine 

It’s impossible to keep that many kids safe during a war. They’re already missing thousands of children, and authorities worry they’ve fallen into the hands of human traffickers. The thought of Ukrainian orphans being trafficked and victimized breaks my heart. All three of my own children were born there, and I’ve devoted much of my life’s work to helping vulnerable Ukrainian children. These numbers — the hundreds of thousands of children being transported out of their war-torn home country, the thousands potentially lost to trafficking — aren’t just numbers to me. They shouldn’t just be numbers to you. 

Even during peacetime, vulnerable Ukrainian children face steep odds and a bleak future. Though Ukraine has sought to improve child welfare in the past 15 years, the majority of vulnerable children, or 60-70%, turn to prostitution or crime after aging out of the orphanages at 16 years old. An estimated 20% get imprisoned, and 10% attempt suicide. Children with special needs get shipped far outside Ukraine’s cities to grow up in isolation and developmental deprivation.

If Russia gains regional dominance, child welfare in Ukraine will take a huge step backward. International adoption and ministry services will no longer be possible for the hardest-to-place children, and domestic adoption and foster care will no longer be an option. These children will have no chance at a future with a loving family near home or in America. 

Russia has already used its own orphans as a geopolitical bargaining chip: Russia banned United States adoption back in 2013, a retaliation against American sanctions. Ukrainian orphans could be next. 

How we should respond

Our calling as Christians is to pray for, minister and witness to these children. We must support them — and Ukraine — in any way possible. We can’t turn a blind eye to their needs. Our calling as Americans is to advocate relentlessly for their protection. We have the benefit of being part of a democracy, where the political system responds to our demands. So, make demands. Speak, as I am speaking. Call your representatives and senators. Donate to and amplify the organizations doing the dangerous, on-the-ground work that will save these children’s lives. 

From afar, wars are just headlines and statistics. Maybe they increase the price of consumer goods or delay shipping times. Maybe they dominate the news for a few days before eventually fading into the background again. But it is morally essential that we remember the terrible human cost of war. Families have been destroyed; children have been lost to traffickers. More parents will fall into poverty after the war and have their children taken from them. If Russia manages to cut Ukraine off from international ministry and adoption, these families and children will be lost to a cycle of poverty and despair.

But every one of these children deserves a loving, stable home. Whether they’re children who have been evacuated as refugees or they’re children who remain trapped in the Ukrainian war zone, they need our prayers, our support, and our advocacy. Let’s keep all Ukrainian children safe — whatever it takes.

By / Nov 19

On Nov. 18, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), through the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) and Office for Civil Rights (OCR), announced the rescission of waivers issued by the Trump administration that protect the religious freedom and consciences of millions of Americans. Notably, HHS is rescinding waivers given to South Carolina, Texas, and Michigan, including child welfare agencies in those states.

Why does this matter?

This action is deeply troubling for faith-based organizations and people who serve communities in their states according to their religious beliefs. The waivers granted to these states protect the religious freedom of faith-based groups serving vulnerable children. 

We need more organizations serving children in foster care, not less. There are currently 423,997 children in the U.S. foster care system, and that number is likely going to continue to increase due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its affect on families. At a time when children need safe, permanent, and loving homes, the government should be ensuring that more providers can serve.

One of the states whose waiver is being rescinded by HHS is South Carolina, and this action will impact an organization entitled Miracle HIll.

Miracle Hill Waiver

In 2019 under the Trump administration, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced a religious liberty waiver for South Carolina’s faith-based organizations following a request from South Carolina Gov. McMaster. The governor made the request when one such organization, Miracle Hill Ministries, was in danger of losing its funding because of an Obama-era regulation that applied to all HHS grantees. 

For almost 30 years, Miracle Hill served all foster children of any race, nationality, religious belief, sex, disability, or political belief and was responsible for finding good placements for 15% of the over 4,500 children in the South Carolina foster care system. Miracle Hill is clear that its sincerely held religious beliefs are what motivate their work in caring for the needy and vulnerable. They view their foster care services as direct obedience to the biblical directive to care for vulnerable children.

This waiver, based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), granted protections for faith-based organizations in South Carolina and allowed them to continue receiving federal funding without compromising their religious principles and convictions.

Fulton v. City of Philadelphia

In June, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia  that faith-based foster care and adoption providers, such as Catholic Social Services in Philadelphia, can continue serving children and families according to their convictions. In the Fulton decision, the court strengthened and clarified the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. 

The basis for the court’s ruling is a clause included in contracts by the City of Philadelphia that give city officials the power to grant certain exemptions. The city government said it has never given out such an exemption and had no intention of providing one to CSS based on their religious beliefs. While the Fulton case set an important precedent for faith-based child welfare providers, there could be lawsuits filed against HHS for this rescission of religious liberty waivers.

Americans have a Constitutional right to religious freedom, and our government must respect the First Amendment and people of faith who serve according to their deeply held religious beliefs.

HHS stated that they would “evaluate religious exemptions and modifications of program requirements on a case-by-case basis.” 

How is the ERLC involved?

Brent Leatherwood, ERLC’s Acting President, stated, 

“These actions not only prevent faith-based child welfare providers from serving vulnerable children in foster care, but they also reveal an animus toward people of faith. Instead of a government that serves the people, these actions show a government willing to target groups for their beliefs. This has the effect of further eroding trust at a time when government institutions can least afford it. Our public square cannot continue to sustain these sorts of reckless and arbitrary changes that are rooted in political ideology, especially those that punish faith-based adoption agencies and religious organizations. Children in need are the ones who end up suffering because of this unending political warfare. That must stop.”

The ERLC is advocating before the administration on behalf of the faith community.  As Leatherwood affirmed, “Every elected official must recognize that religious freedom is a cornerstone of the Constitution. Our government, therefore, has a duty to protect the rights of those who enter the public square with sincerely-held religious beliefs, not assail them. We have communicated our concerns about these moves to the Administration and we will continue advocating on behalf of the faith community on this important matter.”

The ERLC will always promote and defend the human dignity, religious liberty, and conscience rights of all people and religious organizations — within each administration, on Capitol Hill, and throughout the public square. We will continue to work to ensure that vulnerable children in our nation can find safe, permanent, and loving homes.

By / May 7

Mother’s Day can be bittersweet for many. One in 10 couples struggle with infertility, and approximately 10 to 20% of known pregnancies end in miscarriages. For many women who long to have a child, Mother’s Day can serve as a difficult reminder of what they desire, but do not have. The potential pain of Mother’s Day extends further still — for women have chosen an adoption plan for their child, single women who desire to be married and have a family, or women who have had an abortion. And others might be grieving the loss of or navigating a difficult relationship with their mother.


Personally, Mother’s Day can be filled with conflicting emotions. I was born with a somewhat rare medical condition that prevents me from bearing biological children. The loss of that dream feels especially poignant this time of year. But I also have a desire to honor my own mother and mother-in-law and celebrate the women in my life who are mothers. Romans 12:15 is often on my lips as I navigate these tensions and seek to “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”

My husband and I are in the process of an international adoption from India. This Mother’s Day, I feel the strange tension of pursuing motherhood but not yet stepping into the role of “mother.” I’m waiting for paperwork to be approved, for a social worker to deem us eligible to be parents, and to be matched with a child. But I know that waiting is not in vain. 

As an adoptee myself, I’m aware that my children’s stories will contain trauma. Even if our children are adopted young, there is trauma involved any time there’s a break in the natural family. The issue of adoption and child welfare is deeply important to me. I’ve spent time and energy navigating the complexities of these issues in order to advocate on behalf of vulnerable children. While we wait, we are reading books on trauma-informed parenting, listening to seminars, and gleaning wisdom from other adoptive parents so that we can love our children well. Our waiting is not in vain.


We’re also watching the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in India with broken hearts. According to the BBC, “India has seen more than 300,000 new cases a day for nearly two weeks straight while deaths stand at 220,000. Experts say total Covid cases and deaths in India are likely to be much higher, citing lack of testing and patients dying at home without being seen by doctors.” The images and stories we’re witnessing have caused global alarm and attention. I can’t help but wonder how many children will be orphaned because of the thousands of COVID-19 deaths. 


As we watch and wait, we do the best thing we know how to do: We pray. We lift up our future children in prayer almost daily. They might not be known to us, but they are known to our Father, and in that, we take great comfort. We pray for their safety and protection. We pray for their biological parents and the challenging circumstances that led them to making an adoption plan for their children. We pray for the leaders in India to make good and wise decisions for their citizens. We pray for the souls of our children, that they might come to know the Lord as their Savior at a young age.

In my waiting, I often echo the words of David, “O my Strength, I will watch for you, for you, O God, are my fortress.” Waiting can often feel helpless, but Psalm 27:14 reminds us to “be strong, and let your heart take courage” as we “wait for the Lord.” I fix my eyes upon the Lord and ask him to fill me with his strength when I feel weak. 

If you find yourself in a season of waiting right now, allow me to remind you that you are never alone in your struggle. Psalm 38:9 reminds us that “all our longing is before God; our sighing is not hidden from Him.” The Lord promises never to leave or forsake his children. He promises to be good and to set his steadfast love upon us. When you feel overwhelmed and discouraged, on Mother’s Day or any time, press into the promises of the Lord. 

By / Apr 14

Adoption is a priority of the ERLC’s work, both in policy advocacy and family ministry. Jeff Pickering, Chelsea Patterson Sobolik, and Travis Wussow talk about three adoption issues you should be aware of. They cover the effects of the pandemic on adoption, the Adoptee Citizenship Act, and an important case at the Supreme Court for child welfare providers.

At the end of the episode, the crew is joined by our awesome audio engineer, Gary Lancaster to wish him a farewell, say thanks, and reflect on his decade with the ERLC. 

Resources from the Conversation

By / Jan 9

This week, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a final rule that would ensure that a broad array of child welfare providers will be able to serve vulnerable children while living out their deeply held religious beliefs. The finalization of this rule is welcome news and will protect these providers’ freedom to serve. This issue has been a top priority for the ERLC the last two years. 

HHS Chief of Staff Brian Harrison said of the rule, “The HHS grants regulation furthers the Department’s commitment to deregulation, protects the free exercise of religion, and relieves burdens on faith-based organizations seeking HHS support for their important work, especially as we seek to maximize opportunities for children to be adopted by loving families.”

When this rule was proposed, Russell Moore wrote in the Wall Street Journal that “the regulation merely ensures that no one is kept from serving, while ending an attempt to stop religious organizations from doing so consistent with their convictions. It’s a welcome statement that the child-welfare system is about the welfare of children—not proxy culture wars.”

Unfortunately, there are ongoing attempts to bar faith-based organizations that hold traditional, orthodox beliefs about marriage from serving vulnerable children. In 2019, the attorney general of Michigan cancelled a contract for foster care and adoption services with St. Vincent Catholic Charities citing a federal rule from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). In 2018, Philadelphia barred Catholic Social Services from placing children in homes unless it changed its teaching on marriage. 

Child welfare providers in both states have sued, arguing that their religious freedom rights prevent the state from excluding them from the child welfare system. Indeed, the Supreme Court is considering the Philadelphia case this term, and the ERLC is hopeful the Court will issue a strong opinion that upholds these child welfare providers’ right to serve. 

The final HHS rule is available online.

By / Dec 17

Culturally, we have been conditioned to believe that the greatest threat to our children is the stranger. However, statistics do not support our fear of strangers when it comes to sexual abuse. We should be more concerned about the people we know. In order for a pedophile to successfully offend against a child, he or she must do so from a relational context. Within a relationship, the opportunities increase, and the misplaced trust allows the perpetrator to go undetected for longer periods of time. Sex offenders groom the intended victim and the adults1Oftentimes, the adults who are responsible for the care and best interest of the child are called “gatekeepers.” in the child’s life—parents, pastors, and other adults. Grooming is the process a perpetrator uses to build relationships of perceived trust with individuals and a community in order to sexually offend. 

A thorough understanding of grooming is foundational to understanding sexual abuse, formulating good policy and training, and protecting children from sexual abuse. When we are faced with the reality that the stranger is not the most likely perpetrator of sexual abuse, the natural response is often fear and the feeling that we cannot trust anyone. The purpose of this article is not to create irrational fear, but rather to raise awareness and educate families and church leaders to be alert and aware. In order to become more aware, we must understand the prevalence and realities of child sexual abuse, as well as the grooming process a perpetrator uses in order to offend.

The Realities of Child Sexual Abuse

In the United States, about one in four girls and one in six boys will be the victim of sexual abuse during their childhood.2David Cantor et al., “Report on the AAU Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct” (The Association of American Universities, September 21, 2015). Of those children who are sexually abused during childhood, 91% are abused by someone that they know.3 This might be a family member, family friend, teacher, coach, church leader, or neighbor. These individuals have access to the child in a relational context that allows them the ability to build a distorted sense of trust with the child and other adults. This misplaced trust allows the perpetrator to build a false rapport with the child and others in order to go undetected and garner more time with the child victim. 

Given that the majority of sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone within the victim’s community, faith-based organizations4For brevity, I will refer to faith-based organizations which includes churches, schools, camps, and other youth-serving organizations with a faith-based mission. must be aware and on the lookout for signs of a sexual predator. However, oftentimes these organizations are not aware of and do not realize the danger in their midst until it is too late. There are several key reasons why faith-based, youth-serving organizations are prime targets for perpetrators of sexual abuse. 

First, organizations often have a false sense of security that “it cannot happen here” which serves to lower their guard and increases the risk for abuse. 

Second, our organizations need workers and volunteers in our youth and children’s ministries.

Third, faith-based communities are known for being trusting places—we welcome visitors and want to meet and accept people where they are in their spiritual journey. Because of our Christian beliefs, we are often too quick to give trust, and we feel guilty when we are suspicious. 

The mix of premature trust and desperate need for volunteers makes it easier for a perpetrator to gain access to the desired demographic. Trust also blinds an organization in the hiring and recruiting process of employees and volunteers; references and application information goes unchecked because someone “knows” them or the person worked at another church. In addition, community members may fear being seen as overreactive or troublemakers, and this keeps them from speaking up to report troublesome behavior.

The Grooming Process

In order to sexually offend, a perpetrator must gain trust and access to the child. The grooming process includes careful selection of a target, calculated trust-building with the child, gatekeepers, and organization, strategic isolation of the child, and testing of boundaries. 

The first step in the process is selecting the target. Perpetrators are looking for vulnerable targets on an individual, as well as a community level. In looking for a community in which to offend, organizations with low barriers to entry are preferred to ones that have a waiting period to volunteer or a more robust application process. An organization that is in desperate need to fill positions is attractive to perpetrators because the organization may overlook certain deficiencies in application and process in order to fill the position. 

Perpetrators also seek out children with vulnerabilities that the perpetrator can exploit. Perpetrators often insert themselves into family situations where life is very busy, in crisis, or lacks adult supervision.

The second phase of the grooming process is the trust-building phase. Trust building happens on multiple levels. In order to gain access to children, the perpetrator must gain the trust of the child, the organization, and the adult gatekeepers. Perpetrators may present as a volunteer who is always available, seems to go the extra mile, or is often seen as a “kid-magnet” or “pied piper.” Perpetrators are apt at seeing needs that they can fill in order to build trust. 

When it comes to the child, the perpetrator seeks to build a relationship focusing on the things that make the child feel special, older, appreciated, understood, desired, and loved. Over the course of the relationship, the perpetrator will begin to isolate the child. One-on-one encounters tend to increase during this time. This can make the child feel more “special” and “understood.”

As the one-on-one opportunities increase, the perpetrator will begin to push the boundaries in small ways. Each instance is calculated to gain information and see whether the child will let his or her guard down. It is also an experiment to see how aware or distracted the adults are in the child’s life. 

At some point, the perpetrator will begin to push sexual boundaries with the child. At first, the actions may seem very subtle, and the child may view it as accidental. But these advances are meant to test the child. They are meant to be stimulating and yet at the same time seem accidental, allowing the perpetrator to push further the next time. Depending on the age of the child, some perpetrators will use sexual innuendo and media with sexual content to test the waters. The advances may occur in person or virtually. 

The boundary pushing continues and the sexual advances become more overt when the perpetrator feels there is enough power in the relationship to silence and control the child. At the point the child realizes what is going on, he or she feels helpless to stop it, and the perpetrator will use the nature and extent of the sexual relationship to continue controlling the child. The child is trapped and fears that no one will believe him or her. Perpetrators are skilled in using secrecy, blame, guilt, physical violence, and shaming in order to keep the relationship going. 

As adults and organizations entrusted with the care and safety of children, we must be aware of the grooming process and take proactive steps to guard our children and organizations from predators. On many occasions as parents, gatekeepers, and organizations, we choose who has access to our children. We need to be aware of those choices and choose with an awareness of sexual predators and how they operate. Once we become aware and understand the risk, there are proactive steps that can lower the risk and keep children safe.

Proactive Steps to Lower the Risk of Sexual Abuse

For Parents:

  1. In developmentally appropriate ways, talk to children about their bodies. Teach them how to be assertive when they feel uncomfortable or weird. 
  2. Be that safe place where they can tell you anything.
  3. Vet the people and organizations in your child’s life. Ask about employee and volunteer screening and child abuse policy.
  4. Speak up when you feel uncomfortable or see or hear something that doesn’t feel right.

For Organizations:

  1. Create, implement, and follow child safety and abuse prevention policies which should include limiting one-on-one opportunities, screening of employees and volunteers, defining acceptable and unacceptable behaviors, and reporting.
  2. Train your employees and volunteers and show them that the safety of children is a priority of your organization.
  3. Eliminate unnecessary one-on-one interactions.
  4. Make all activities of your organization observable and interruptible in order to lessen opportunities for abuse.
  5. Have an open-door policy and take the concerns of your community seriously.

Understanding grooming and putting into practice these proactive steps in your home or ministry will help protect those in your care. We do not need to be irrationally fearful, but rather we must understand the grooming process to increase awareness, be alert to predators, implement screening policies and best practices, and to courageously protect against real threats.

  • 1
    Oftentimes, the adults who are responsible for the care and best interest of the child are called “gatekeepers.”
  • 2
    David Cantor et al., “Report on the AAU Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct” (The Association of American Universities, September 21, 2015).
  • 3
  • 4
    For brevity, I will refer to faith-based organizations which includes churches, schools, camps, and other youth-serving organizations with a faith-based mission.
By / Dec 17

Parents and caregivers have the wonderful privilege to explain to their children that God made their bodies. Because private parts are private, there can be lots of questions, curiosity, or shame regarding them. For their protection, children need to know about private parts and understand that God made their body and made it special. 

The message children need to hear is: “God made all of you. Every part of your body is good, and some parts are private. He made the parts of your body that other people see every day, and he made your private parts. Every part is good because God made every part and called them all good.”

Heartbreaking sexual abuse facts 

Parents need and want help in protecting their child from sexual abuse, which is an important and prevalent issue. One in four women and one in six men have been or will be assaulted in their lifetime. Heartbreakingly, many of the victims of this epidemic are children: 15% of those assaulted are under age 12, and 29% are between ages 12 to 17. Girls between the ages of 16 and 19 are four times more likely than the general population to be victims of sexual assault.

Most victims of child sexual assault know their attacker: 34.2% of assailants were family members, 58.7% were acquaintances, and only 7% of the perpetrators were strangers to the victim.1U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2000 Sexual Assault of Young Children as Reported to Law Enforcement (2000).

Although strangers are stereotyped as perpetrators of sexual assault, the evidence indicates that a high percentage of offenders are acquaintances of the victim.

Most child sexual abuse offenders describe themselves as religious, and studies suggest the most egregious offenders tend to be actively involved with their faith community.2Donna Eshuys & Stephen Smallbone, Religious Affiliations Among Adult Sexual Offenders, 18 SEX ABUSE 279 (2006); Philip Firestone, et al., Clerics Who Commit Sexual Offenses: Offender, Offense, and Victim Characteristics, 18 JOURNAL OF CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE 442 (2009).

Parents and caregivers need to be smarter and better prepared than those who would want to harm the child they love and want to protect. While actions by adults can be more effective than expecting children to protect themselves from sexual abuse, children still need accurate, age-appropriate information about child sexual abuse and confidence their parents and caregivers will support them.

Practical ways to educate your children 

Education is important in prevention against inappropriate sexual behavior or contact. By teaching children about their body and discussing appropriate and inappropriate touch, you are helping them understand their ability to say “No” to unwanted touch, which will help them if anyone ever tries to hurt or trick them.

Here are nine practical things parents and caregivers can do to protect their children from sexual abuse:

1. Explain to your child that God made their body. 

An explanation can look something like, “Every part of your body is good, and some parts of your body are private.”

2. Teach proper names of private body parts.

It might be uncomfortable at first, but use the proper names of body parts. Children need to know the proper names for their genitals. This knowledge gives children correct language for understanding their bodies, for asking questions that need to be asked, and for telling about any behavior that could lead to sexual abuse.

Clearly identify for your child which parts of their anatomy are private. Explain to your child that “some places on your body should never be touched by other people—except when you need help in the bathroom, or are getting dressed, or when you go to the doctor.” You can do this with young children during bath time or have your child dress in a bathing suit and show them that all areas covered by a bathing suit are “private.” The bathing suit analogy can be a bit misleading because it fails to mention that other parts of the body can be touched inappropriately (like mouth, legs, neck, arms), but it is a good start for little ones to understand the concept of private parts.

3. Invite your child’s communication. 

Let your child know they can tell you if anyone touches them in the private areas or in any way that makes them feel uncomfortable (even areas not covered by the bathing suit)—no matter who the person is, or what the person says to them. Assure your child they will not be in trouble if they tell you they’ve been touched inappropriately—rather, you will be proud of them for telling you and will help them through the situation.

4. Talk about touches. 

Be clear with adults and children about the difference between touch that is OK and touch that is inappropriate. To your child say something like: “Most of the time you like to be hugged, snuggled, tickled, and kissed, but sometimes you don’t, and that’s OK. Let me know if anyone—family member, friend, or anyone else—touches you or talks to you in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable.”

Teach little ones how to say, “Stop,” “All done,” and, “No more.” You can reiterate this by stopping immediately when your child expresses that they are all done with the hugging or tickling. Your reaction is noteworthy for them as it demonstrates they have control over their bodies and desires.

If there are extended family members who may have a hard time understanding your family boundaries, you can explain that you are helping your children understand their ability to say no to unwanted touch, which will help them if anyone ever tries to hurt them. For example, if your child does not want to kiss Grandpa, let them give a high five or handshake instead.

5. Don’t ask your child to maintain your emotions. 

Without thinking, we sometimes ask a child something along the lines of, “I’m sad, can I have a hug?” While this may be innocent in intent, it sets the child up to feel responsible for your emotions and state of being: “Mom is sad . . . I need to cheer her up.” If someone wanted to abuse a child they might use similar language to have the child “help” them feel better, and the child might rationalize it as acceptable if this is something they do innocently with you.

6. Throw out the word “secret.” 

Explain the difference between a secret and a surprise. Surprises are joyful and generate excitement, because in just a little while something will be unveiled that will bring great delight. Secrets, in contrast, cause isolation and exclusion. When it becomes customary to keep secrets with just one individual, children are more susceptible to abuse. Perpetrators frequently ask their victims to keep things secret just between them.

7. Clarify rules for playing “doctor.” 

Playing doctor can turn body parts into a game. If children want to play doctor, you can redirect this game by suggesting using dolls and stuffed animals as patients instead of their own body. This way they can still use their doctor tools, but to fix and take care of their toys. It may take some time for them to make the shift, but just remind them gently that we don’t play games, like doctors, with our bodies. If you find your child exploring his or her own body with another child, calmly address the situation and set clear boundaries by saying, “It looks like you and your friend are comparing your bodies. Put on your clothes. And remember, even though it feels good to take our clothes off, we keep our clothes on when playing.”3Dialogue from Stop It Now! tip sheet:

8. Identify whom to trust.

 Talk with your kids about whom you and they trust. Then give them permission to talk with these trustworthy adults whenever they feel scared, uncomfortable, or confused about someone’s behavior toward them.

9. Report suspected abuse immediately.

You’ve read these steps, now consider yourself an advocate against childhood sexual abuse. Report anything you know or suspect might be sexual abuse. If you don’t, it’s possible no one else will.

Educating your children and giving age-appropriate information about sexual abuse is an important way to help prevent abuse. These nine practical steps will help you to empower your children against sexual abuse and will give them confidence that they can come to you for help and you will support them.

  • 1
    U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2000 Sexual Assault of Young Children as Reported to Law Enforcement (2000).
  • 2
    Donna Eshuys & Stephen Smallbone, Religious Affiliations Among Adult Sexual Offenders, 18 SEX ABUSE 279 (2006); Philip Firestone, et al., Clerics Who Commit Sexual Offenses: Offender, Offense, and Victim Characteristics, 18 JOURNAL OF CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE 442 (2009).
  • 3
    Dialogue from Stop It Now! tip sheet:
By / Dec 15

Matt Sliger, a pastor at Southwoods Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee, recounts how his own children have been ministered to during his church’s response to the coronavirus.