HARLINGEN, Texas — Janet Magee was horrified when a child who sometimes came to the church she attended was murdered, one of the nation's 1,570 children who die each year from abuse. But the sheer magnitude of young lives slammed by child abuse and neglect didn't hit home until she found herself in a family court trying to rescue her own grandchildren.
She'd never have predicted it within her own family. She'd somehow felt that going to church and serving as director of children's programs there was a kind of "kid insurance." By the time she recognized what was happening to her grandkids, "the neglect was serious — our own personal tragedy."
She and her husband John also saw children whose parents or grandparents simply never showed up to court. So she started praying for those kids, too, and then for the ones she would never see. The Magees asked their church and then other churches nearby to pray for all those children who were abused and neglected or are at risk — as many as 3 million any given year in America, according to national child protection numbers.
As the Magees pray Sunday for children at the First Christian Fellowship Church in Harlingen, Texas, they will have lots of company. Hundreds of churches in more than 30 states — about 2.5 million people — have registered for "Blue Sunday," a day when congregations across America pray for endangered or at-risk children and rescuers. Others will join in, too, uncounted. On the last Sunday in April, they pray first for the kids. Then they pray for the social workers and police officers who will try to protect them, the judges that will sort out their cases, the families that will change, and new families that will open hearts and homes in cases where change doesn't happen. And they pray for policymakers who need wisdom to craft sound rules.
Blue's not just the color of bruises, Magee said. It's also a color of hope.
Acting on it
Prayer is a starting point, but not the whole job, said the Rev. Aaron Graham, lead pastor of The District Church, an interdenominational evangelical church in the nation's capital that embraces Blue Sunday and the challenges of kids in foster care.
"Not all people can do everything, but everybody can do something," he said. "The key message for us is that so many are overwhelmed by the scope of the issues. Just break it down."
He said individuals can mentor, provide stressed parents or foster parents with respite, or maybe even become a foster-adoptive parent. He and his wife are going through that process, anxious to impact a young life. Anyone can pray, both for the children and for those who could better their lives.
Child abuse and neglect are on the hearts of his congregation, he said, and they've embraced what they call a D.C. 127 campaign. It's a riff on a campaign Colorado Community Church in Aurora launched several years ago called Project 127. The number comes from the Bible's James 1:27, which says to look after orphans and widows and those in distress.
Graham knows how many children are in the D.C. foster care system and what portion will likely never reunite with their families. His church's goal, he said, is to reverse things so that the number of people on waiting lists to adopt or foster children is longer than that of kids who need temporary or permanent homes. It's backwards now, and his congregation wants so badly to set it right that they'll announce this Sunday a $20,000 gift to programs to bolster recruiting and foster parent training, he told the Deseret News.
Like the Grahams, 25 other people in his church trained recently to become foster parents. In some communities, people who started by praying for the cause of wounded kids now serve on child welfare boards in their communities or help organize special events, from handing out child safety car seats to mentoring inexperienced parents. They also try to knock down small barriers that would prevent a family from taking a child who is in crisis. Magee speaks, for example, of helping a grandmother buy a bus ticket to pick up her grandkids and the clothing they need for school.
A big boost
Blue Sunday keeps growing. It went to a whole new level when it was "adopted" as a cause by Shepherding the Next Generation, a nonprofit network of evangelical pastors and ministry leaders committed to defending children in need. Its website describes what love for at-risk families looks like: giving teen moms strong parenting skills and the youngest kids access to early childhood education so they get to kindergarten ready to learn; helping troubled teens turn it around; and training young men so they grow up to be better fathers, often, than they had themselves.
This network, too, knows the painful statistics: In 2011, about 681,000 children were confirmed victims of serious abuse or neglect. Most of the 1,570 who died were killed by the parents who were supposed to guide their growth and keep them from harm.
The Washington, D.C.-based group targets first the issues for children birth to third grade, said director Tom Pearce, a former Michigan state legislator. They believe in reaching into impoverished and challenged homes to mentor and encourage. The church, he said, is part of the solution to societal problems, so they also promote programs that are proven. "Pastors become unexpected messengers to policymakers about these issues," he said.
Prayers for the rescuers of children are especially important, he noted. "If the courts ignore the concerns of caseworkers or downplay it, the rescue is incomplete. We ask God to give them all incredible discernment as to how to best protect that child." They also pray for a "Samaritan heart" — one that helps them to be involved, to step up, to report, to protect.
Social workers who must make tough decisions about families especially need prayer and encouragement, said Texas Child Protective Services Program Director Julian Apolinar. "The power of prayer is extremely helpful, particularly with the families that we work with and the children who are under our charge. ... By having as many people pray for these children who need to be in safe, loving, nurturing homes, hopefully that will go a long way."
People are quicker to thank first responders like police, fire and rescue crews and soldiers. That's good, he said. But, "it's easy to forget our other first responders — CPS staff. Our staff go out every day and knock on doors where there is a suspected child in need of protection from maltreatment or abuse. Our staff advocate for these children in the courts' legal system and work diligently trying to find a positive, permanent outcome for the children entrusted to them. These courageous people also need that type of prayer. As social workers, we believe it is our duty and responsibility to ensure that this most vulnerable population is not forgotten. Child abuse awareness and prevention is the entire community's responsibility to protect the unprotected."
He hopes, he said, that the power of prayer and commitment from churches and community leaders will one day mean children aren't abused or neglected.
It's a sentiment echoed across the country.
"Utah Division of Child and Family Services is extremely appreciative of those in our community who come together to ensure the safety and well-being of our future — our children," said spokeswoman Elizabeth Sollis. "Child safety is best accomplished when those in the community and positions of power, whether it be policymakers, government agencies, non-governmental agencies or faith-based groups, not only discuss the need for child safety, but take action to make sure it happens. All of our children deserve the best."
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