I will never forget the day I was driving down Main Street in my town, just blocks from home, when I saw what looked like every police and emergency vehicle in the county packed around an old house with a rundown shed in back. Even as I drove by, I got this sick feeling in my gut…like my spirit knew something unbearably awful had happened. It was confirmed later when news stations reported that a 6-year-old boy’s body had been found in the shed behind the house. Employees of a nearby business reported seeing police officers coming out of the shed throwing up because the scene was so sickening.

Our entire town was devastated, and in the days and weeks that followed, everyone wanted to know, how could this have happened? The obvious answer was that the roommate of the boy’s grandfather was a convicted sex offender (who is now serving a life sentence without parole). The less obvious answer was that the boy was fatherless. His mother, a single mom, let him spend the night with his grandfather, probably so she could have a break.

As devastating as this is, what is even more alarming is that it is not an isolated incident. Stories like this are happening daily all over this country. In the 2010 National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect (published by the Office of Planning Research and Evaluation of the Administration for Children and Families), results showed that children in single parent families experienced the highest rate of abuse and neglect. In homes where a single mother is cohabiting with a partner who is not the child’s biological father, the child was ten times more likely (than in a traditional two-parent home) to experience abuse. And while child abuse and neglect overall were “significantly” down, in single-parent households they had increased since 1996.

I can assure you these statistics are accurate…possibly even conservative. A little over a year ago I sat in a circle of teenage moms at a retreat and listened to story after story of how they had been raped, abused, exposed to pornography, abandoned, and so many other unthinkable things. In every case, the girl’s biological father was absent from the home. Another single mom shared a story with me where she and both of her sisters were sexually abused during their childhood from uncles, boyfriends, or others they had been left with while their mother was away working long hours.

Before I go any further, I have to say that my intention is not to make single moms feel any more guilt or fear than they already do. We have all been in a bind or found ourselves in situations where we had to leave our kids with someone we didn’t fully know or trust because we simply had no other choice. I know what it’s like to have no family around to help, no money to pay a babysitter and no other viable options when your job (and only household income) is on the line.

We all know that we’re in a vulnerable position—and so are our kids. They are more vulnerable to bullying, depression, experimentation with drugs and alcohol, and to abuse. As they get older, they are also more likely to seek validation from the opposite sex. If you’re like me, then I know your greatest desire as a single mom is to have a safe place to take your children; somewhere people will not just tolerate them, but love them, protect them and invest in them as if they were their own. I know you want this place to be your church community because you know the best hope you and your kids have is to stay close to Jesus. Some of you are blessed to be in churches that embrace you, understand your needs, and come alongside you and your kids. But I also know many of you have been hurt by the lack of awareness or care churches have shown when you’ve asked for help. If it’s any consolation, know that it hurts God’s heart too.

“Is not your wickedness great, and your iniquity without end? You have sent widows away empty, and the arms of the fatherless were crushed.” – Job 22:5, 9 (ESV)

This passage is just one of many throughout the Bible that identifies widows and the fatherless as the most vulnerable in God’s economy. It describes the height of ungodliness as sending a widow away with no help and no provision or letting harm come upon a fatherless kid. I don’t believe any church would intentionally do this. However, when so many vulnerable children in single parent homes are suffering neglect and abuse, when single parents are crying out by the thousands that they need help and feel completely overlooked by their church, and fewer than one percent of churches in America offer a substantial ministry for single parent families, how can we not be brokenhearted, repent, and agree it’s time for a massive course correction?

It is tragic, but not surprising, that when single moms fail to find protection or provision within the church, many seek it in wrong relationships with the opposite sex. At best, these relationships set poor examples of sexual integrity for our kids. At worst, they can be harmful and abusive, sometimes even life-threatening. I know moms who have three or four children, all by different fathers, none of whom have stuck around to parent or provide, let alone marry these women. One single mom confessed to me in tears that in one particularly difficult season she had a different man in bed with her every night, just trying to get money to feed her kids. In Biblical times, a woman who had been widowed (divorced, abandoned or lost a husband to death) had grim prospects. Her only options for survival were to remarry or become a prostitute. I don’t think much has really changed today. We call it by different names and turn a blind eye to it, but ultimately many single moms and kids are in extremely vulnerable positions, up for grabs to whoever will give them a break, or a place to shack up or help paying some bills.

So how do we, as believers and as the Church, respond to this?

If widows and fatherless kids are one of the closest things to God’s heart, shouldn’t every church be reflecting His heart by rushing out to identify all the single parent families in their communities, paying them personal visits, and offering them refuge, protection and physical and spiritual nourishment?

Church—single moms are crying out for your help. They need childcare help from people they can trust. They need help providing for their kids, and they need help fathering their kids and healing the ‘daddy gap’ in their hearts.

I know it breaks the heart of our Heavenly Father when one single mom is left to fend for herself or one fatherless child gets neglected or abused. If we truly share His heart and want to call ourselves followers of Jesus we must say, “Not on our watch!” Let it not be said of us that we sent widows away empty and crushed the arms of the fatherless.

This is an excerpt from the book The Daddy Gap by Dawn Walker and Matt Haviland, which will be released this fall.

Dawn is a single mother and is the Founder and Director of Single Parent Missions, a ministry dedicated to raising up single parent families to transform generations. To subscribe to her daily “Hope Notes” for single parents, visit www.singleparentmissions.org. Matt is a single father and is the Founder and Director of A Father’s Walk Single Dad’s Ministry. To follow his blog, visit www.afatherswalk.org. Both are speakers and work with churches to envision and equip them for effective single parent ministry. 

Publication date: July 25, 2013