April is Child Abuse Prevention Month

Blue pinwheels
Blue pinwheels for Child Abuse Prevention Month

April is Child Abuse Prevention Month. If you happen to see blue pinwheels in a park or on the lawn of a courthouse this month, they represent every child who has been a victim of child abuse within the last year. It’s a staggering sight and is a reminder of a very sobering statistic.

As a social worker I’ve dedicated the last few years of my career working toward the prevention of pediatric abusive head trauma and volunteering as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) with foster children in Northern Utah.

In my line of work, approximately 25% of abusive head trauma victims die. Most of them are under the age of two years old. I’m inundated every day with information about babies who are abused, with a quarter of them succumbing to the injuries of that abuse. It’s work that hurts my heart and my soul, but meeting survivors, especially adult survivors, and their caregivers, gives me the strength and inspiration to continue on in this much needed, if not soul crushing, work.

If you’re wondering what does this have to do with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, let me educate you a little. A Gallup poll conducted in 2013 found that 60% of Utahns identify as members of the Church. That would be a majority of this state, but probably the lowest majority since 1847. I know there are many more citizens who no longer identify as members, but were still raised as members or whose family are still members. I would say, having lived in Utah my entire life, that most people either are members, have been members, or have been heavily influenced by the church.

But did you know that 1 in 5 Utah kids will be sexually abused before the age of 18? According to the organization, Prevent Child Abuse Utah, that’s four times the rate of the national average. That would mean, according to the Gallup poll, a majority of those children are members of the church. In every CASA case I have worked on, the families involved all identified as LDS in some way. In Utah, both girls and boys are sexually abused almost equally. Statistics indicate that 54% of reported child sexual abuse victims are girls and 46% are boys. Because of that Utah taxpayers pay approximately $1 billion annually on child abuse. This equates to just over $2.7 million per day for Utah tax payers.

However, most children do not report sexual abuse. In fact, 88% of adults who were sexually abused as children stated they never reported the abuse. It is estimated that only 1 in 10 victims will report abuse. What most people don’t realize, is that 90% of the time a child will be abused by someone in their circle of trust, not a stranger. It’s not the boogey man in the bushes – it’s that trusted person in your life who you thought would never abuse a child.

In the last year we’ve been hearing more and more about men in positions of authority in the Church who have abused either children or people they had stewardship over – people in their circle of trust. Just last week Sterling Van Wagenen was charged with 1 count of aggravated sexual abuse of a child in connection with a girl between the ages of 7 and 9, which occurred between 2013 and 2015. Those were the years the Church hired Van Wagenen to produce the temple videos. This was after he admitted to his Stake President in 1993 that he molested a 13-year-old boy that year. Maybe you believe in forgiveness (I do too) but I also believe protecting children should come first before giving second chances to child molestors. If only 1 victim in 10 comes forward about sexual abuse, we can extrapolate from those statistics that for every 1 child that comes forward, there are 9 who are silent. I doubt this boy in 1993 and this girl two decades later were Van Wagenen’s only victims.

The latest statistics show that in 2015 there were over 20,000 investigations of child abuse and neglect. The state population in that year was close to 3 million. During 2015 the rate of child abuse was 10.5 per 1,000 children, and those were just the cases reported to the Division of Children and Family Services (DCFS). Out of those 41.1% were physically abused and 21.1% were sexually abused.

Child abuse happens in every demographic you can think of, including religion. Child abuse is not unique to the LDS Church, but as a citizen of this state and a person who was raised in the Church, the child abuse statistics hit a little closer to home for me. In my position at my non-profit I track all the publicly reported cases of infant abuse in the country and we have seen a rise in infant abuse in Utah since the beginning of 2019.

My purpose in writing this is not to accuse the Church of anything, but to wake up those members who don’t believe child abuse happens in our community. It does. It absolutely does. Unfortunately what I see in LDS circles is a lot of burying of heads in the sand because people are either in denial that child abuse, and especially child sexual abuse, could be a problem in their community. It’s a problem in every community. And when known child predators are being asked to produce videos for our holiest of places, we need to stop and demand better of our leaders. I’m sorry, but we do not have the gold standard in protecting against child abuse in the Church. Just the child abuse statistics in Utah alone prove that.

During this month, I’m asking all of you what you can do to help eradicate child abuse in our communities. The motto for us CASA volunteers is “I am for the Child.” Can you please also be for the child? Can you put the safety and welfare of children ahead of your loyalty to family members, friends, church members, and institutions? In Utah, all adults are mandatory reporters of child abuse. The National Child Abuse Hotline to report child abuse in the United States if 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453).

And remember, when you see a blue pinwheel on a lawn, know that that precious young person could have been spared abuse, and possibly death, if only one person had spoken up and had been for the child.

This post was originally featured on The Exponent II

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To be a Witness

Easter has always been my favorite religious holiday. I relish the messages of re-birth, renewal, and hope that Easter brings. I love the reminder that my redeemer lives. “What comfort this sweet sentence gives!” [Hymn #136]. Jesus may have suffered in the Garden of Gethsemane and died on the cross for my sins, but his resurrection demonstrates that through his Grace I can be forgiven and also live again.

In preparation for Easter this year I am observing Lent. For the past few years of observing Lent I have given up a habit that is very difficult for me; but, I’ve also taken the opportunity to read the four Gospels during these 46 days. Over the last few years I have connected with the verse in John 20:16 that testifies of Mary Magdalene as the first to witness the resurrected Christ.

Jesus said to her, “Mary.”

She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!”  (which means “Teacher”).  (NIV)

This verse never stood out to me until the first time I observed Lent. That year I was asked to give a talk in Sacrament meeting on Easter. It’s no surprise to any Latter-day Saint that Easter is not often a celebrated and special holiday in the church. I’ve attended many services on Easter where Easter was never mentioned. In fact, when I was asked to speak that Sunday, I was given the topic of self-reliance. Being the rebel I was, I decided I was going to speak about Easter so that I could testify of a living Christ. I wanted to be a witness of Him. (I found being given the topic of self-reliance ironic considering Easter is all about Grace.)

Mormons do not worship the cross. We are not interested in the crucifixion of Christ because we believe he paid for our sins in the Garden of Gethsemane. Because Jesus began to fulfill his mission in the Garden and then completed it when he was resurrected, you would think that Easter would be given much more emphasis in our church meetings.  There are only three hymns in our hymnal dedicated specifically to Easter. To the larger Christian world, Easter is the most important Christian holiday and one that is given much outward displays of ritual and celebration. Easter is the heart of Christianity. Without Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, the entire doctrine of Christianity fails.  Jesus has risen! This is the “good news” of the Gospel.

With how important Easter is, I have to wonder why it’s merely a blip for Mormons. There is no observation of Lent. There is no Holy week celebrations. There is no Good Friday services. In most wards, there is barely a mention of the sacredness of this day most Easters. A Bishop and Ward Chorister really have to go out of their way to create a significant Easter program for sacrament meeting.

Isn’t it interesting that Jesus’ apostle were not whom he chose to be the first to witness his resurrected body? Many accounts list “the other Mary” or “the Mother of James” and Joanna as two additional witnesses. The Jewish Law of Moses required at least two or three witnesses (Deuteronomy 17:6), a practice that is still in place to witness any saving ordinances for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

I have to wonder why Easter is not more significant to Mormons. Is it because we focus more on obedience and works than Grace? Or is it because it was a woman, or three women, who witnessed the resurrected Christ, and not his apostles, that it fails to be more significant to us? Women are never allowed to be witnesses of sacred ordinances in the LDS church. As a mother, I was not allowed to be a witness for my children’s baptism. Blessing an infant isn’t even a saving ordinance, and I was not allowed to be a part of it. Women cannot be a witness to baptisms for the dead or sealings inside the temple, our most sacred place, the Holiest of the Holies. If we embrace and observe Easter and speak about whom Christ chose to be his first witness(es) after his resurrection, will we have to reconcile our doctrine, which keeps women out of performing the duties of a witness?

If Mary Magdalene was holy enough, worthy enough, in a time and place where the status of women was lower than cattle, to be the first person to witness the resurrected Christ, why can’t I be a witness to sacred and saving ordinances? How am I different than Mary Magdalene? Does Christ see the women of the LDS church as fundamentally lacking in honesty and integrity to be a witness to the ordinances that will bring the children of our Heavenly Father back to him for exaltation? And if that were true, why would Jesus choose to make three women a witness to the most important event in Christianity and human history?

This year while I sit in Easter worship services, I’m going to think about and honor those three special women Jesus chose to be the first witnesses to the Resurrected Christ, and know that I can be a witness for Him as well.

Originally posted on Exponent II