By Brad Hambrick
The relationship between ministry leaders and social workers or mental health professionals has not always been a good one. At one level, this is surprising because both have devoted their vocations to helping people in the midst of their greatest emotional-relational-spiritual brokenness. At another level, it is not surprising because of differences that emerge between these two professions.
Social workers and mental health professionals are beholden to one individual or family at a time. They have a series of isolated helping relationships and each choice they make is for the flourishing of that individual.
By contrast, pastors are beholden to an entire congregation and care for each individual as a member of the group. Each choice a pastor makes has the felt sense of being a precedent for the entire congregation.
When providing care in an abuse context—which is always interpersonal and is usually marked by wildly varying renditions of what actually happened—these differences have immense implications.
Too often the tension that exists between the advisements of pastors and social workers is exclusively chalked up to what they believe about the Bible, marriage, or morality. While theological differences often do exist, a good working relationship between ministry leaders and social workers is possible and necessary.
To help you navigate these waters, we want to provide an overview of three key professionals in victim advocate roles.
Child Protection Services
First, Child Protection Services, or CPS for short. CPS is a locally run government organization tasked with protecting children. CPS is sometimes called the Department of Children and Families. CPS workers are often called social workers; we will talk about them next. However, not everyone who works for CPS is a social worker and not all social workers work for CPS.
CPS adheres to strict confidentiality policies. This can sometimes create a sense of frustration and mistrust from ministry leaders. CPS depends on the family to communicate for themselves with those offering assistance unless you have been identified as a caretaker for the children.
CPS prioritizes the vulnerability of victims in their approach to interviewing. For instance, when it is reported that a father has abused his child, CPS will first attempt to see the child and assure their safety before interviewing the mother, and then lastly, the perpetrator of abuse. Alerting a suspected perpetrator that CPS has been or will be contacted alters the course of a CPS investigation and can put a victim at risk.
CPS has an ethical and legal obligation to consider the parents’ wishes for their children, including which of their friends and neighbors can be considered for temporary placement. As long as the parents’ wishes do not put the children in immediate risk of harm, CPS must prioritize the parents’ wishes.
Social workers are professionals who have devoted themselves to enhancing the well-being of the vulnerable, oppressed, and those living in poverty. They may work in hospitals, doctor’s offices, mental health clinics, schools, hospice, CPS, domestic violence clinics, shelters, or other non-profit organizations. Licensed clinical social workers, also known as an LCSW, can work as therapists and are sanctioned to diagnose mental health disorders and provide therapy.
Social workers are especially helpful in abusive situations for a variety of reasons: (a) their training on the impact of abuse, (b) their experience assessing abusive situations, and (c) their experience recognizing individual and family needs.
Social workers are always mandated reporters. But this is the same standard ministry leaders are under, so this should not be a point of conflict.
Social workers have to accept all religions and walks of life within their professional role. They should support their client’s, your church member’s, religious goals. However, this means that a social worker cannot change their assessment of the case simply for immoral behavior. For instance, if an abusive spouse is also having an affair, this is not an “additional demerit” in the eyes of the social worker.
Social workers are also under strict confidentiality guidelines similar to a CPS worker. However, a church member can sign an information release for a church leader to speak with the social worker about cooperative care between therapy and the church.
A Guardian ad-litem or GAL is a trained community volunteer. Their role is to get to know the child, the child’s living environment, their social environment, and what the child’s preferred outcomes are in the pertinent decisions being made about their life.
GALs are relevant in legal proceedings where it would be easy for the child’s voice to be under-represented or manipulated. If you are ministering to an abuse victim or someone being divorced who believes their child’s interest is not getting adequate consideration, they can request that the judge assign a GAL.
A GAL makes a recommendation to the court. Judges are not obligated to follow the GAL’s recommendations, but they do take them seriously.
GALs are only in an advisory role to the court and CPS. They do not make recommendations to family members, children, pastors, etc. GAL’s are not capable of respecting the family’s privacy because they have been tasked with gathering information as a means to supply the court with their recommendations.
When CPS, social workers, or GALs are involved in a family’s care, it means that danger has been involved and conflict is high. However, their voice in the judicial process can bring stability to a situation that might be difficult to maintain with the mere peer influence of ministry leaders.
This article is adapted from Becoming a Church that Cares Well for the Abused. Access this free training at ChurchCares.com.
*Please note the curriculum is not intended to be legal counsel or to provide holistic training for counseling or pastoral care on the issue of abuse but is an accessible tutorial on how to respond with pastoral and ethical excellence. The curriculum gives a theological foundation for the topic, brings understanding on the issues connected to abuse disclosure and reporting, and gives practical wisdom by which leaders can navigate complex situations.