This article is a reprint of a Virtus monthly bulletin written by Sharon Doty, a frequent author and contributor to the Virtus ongoing training program. Doty has a master’s degree in human relations and a diploma from the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine Department of Pediatrics in Interdisciplinary Training in Child Abuse and Neglect, and she graduated with distinction with a juris doctorate from the University of Oklahoma College of Law. Doty has 10 years experience as a litigator and approximately 20 years as a staff person and volunteer in agencies advocating for victims of abuse and neglect in court.
“In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In our Protecting God’s Children for Adults sessions, we discuss two aspects of bystander engagement. First is the failure to speak up when an adult observer has a concern about the behavior of an adult toward a child. Second is engaging in gossip about the concern with no regard for the damage these conversations can cause.
In potentially abusive relationships, there is a range of behaviors – with elements that could be healthy and age-appropriate – and other elements that are child sexual abuse. There are many ways one could intervene. The difficulty is identifying the right circumstances to interrupt and the right action to take.
When we talk about the failure of adult observers to speak up, we recognize several factors that enter into the decision. There is a fear of retaliation, a concern that intervention will seem to be an accusation, the fear of “being wrong” about what’s happening, the fear of being sued for speaking up and not wanting to upset someone we know and/or with whom we work or volunteer. These concerns are universal.
Researchers considered what it takes for a bystander to overcome these concerns and take action. They found there are five steps to the process:
1. Notice the event along a continuum of actions
2. Consider whether the situation demands your action
3. Decide if you have a responsibility to act
4. Choose what form of assistance to use
5. Understand how to implement your actions safely
Confronting the enormity of these questions often leaves people with a decision to do nothing. The decision to “communicate your concerns” demands we be among those who chose an action(s) that creates a safe environment and protects potential victims from harm.
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