Early this year, my friend and colleague Lyn Barrett asked me to write the forward for her upcoming book, Crazy: Reclaiming Life from the Shadow of Traumatic Memory which is now available for pre-order. It was a great privilege to do so, and I am sharing the forward in this blog post. It’s a must-read book for survivors of childhood trauma and all who walk with them.
In her unforgettable memoir, Lyn Barrett helps us grasp how childhood trauma can be deeply hidden from our consciousness, and that the deeper truth of what happened can be discovered and healed even when cognitive memory remains elusive.
A detailed narrative memory is the prized standard for truth in our culture. Yet we know, through the work of Dr. Bessel van der Kolk and other pioneers in the field of trauma, that The Body Keeps the Score (Penguin Books, 2015) and that traumatic memories often do not reside in our cognitive brain but in dissociated fragments that seem to burst into our awareness out of nowhere. In a survivor with dissociative identity disorder (DID), some of those fragments take on distinct personalities and roles, all created with a very specific and protective purpose.
In her memoir, Lyn takes us inside her internal alter system developed to protect her from the unbearable weight of full knowledge of what was happening to her as a child. Her story is a gift for all the survivors of childhood sexual abuse whose chronically hurting bodies, fractured relationships, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, suicidal ideation, self-harming behavior, and so much more are evidence of crimes committed against them for which only whisps of cognitive memory can be found.
Courts can convict a person of murder without a body, given a strong presentation of evidence that renders a verdict beyond a reasonable doubt by twelve peers. Yet those sexually abused as children often interrogate themselves mercilessly, demanding details of who, what, how, where, when, searching desperately for clear, compelling memory of what exactly happened. Echoes of childhood violence whisper from the shadows, press for release from the hidden chambers of the mind, and ripple through the body as pain.
I got to know Lyn when she was studying at Lancaster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. I occasionally taught classes on religious response to child sexual abuse at the seminary at the invitation of Dr. Frank Stalfa, a scholar and pastoral counselor who encouraged me to weave my own experience of severe childhood trauma into the liberation theology that captivated me during my work with displaced people in El Salvador during the years of bloody civil war.
At the time, I was directing programs on family-violence prevention at a counseling center, and my book The Deepest Wound: How a Journey to El Salvador Led to Healing from Mother-Daughter Incest (Writer’s Showcase, 2001) had been recently published, which Lyn discovered when she was browsing through the seminary’s bookshop. She called me on the phone one day, saying she had read my book and believed we had some similar experiences. She asked if we could meet.
That meeting was the beginning of our relationship as colleagues and friends. Unlike Lyn, I had never been diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder (which at the time was known as multiple personality disorder), but I was highly dissociative, having mastered the art of leaving my body during times of extreme pain. Huge chunks of my childhood were simply blank, and the excruciating excavation I undertook during years of therapy eventually unearthed enough fragments of cognitive memory to stitch together the narrative of my childhood.
This was not the case with Lyn and is not the reality for many dissociative survivors. We buy into the myth, despite evidence to the contrary in the field of trauma and in our own bodies, that what happened was not real unless we have cognitive validation. Lyn’s skill as a narrator of her internal systems of various personalities illustrates what Dr. Judith Herman, a leading Harvard psychiatrist and author of the landmark book Trauma and Recovery (1992,1997 Basic Books), described as doublethink in which, even with amnesia, people who have experienced repeated childhood trauma from which there was no escape will describe simultaneously knowing and not knowing what happened. Remembering and not remembering.
Rosie, a tiny child whose core characteristic was trust and around whom Lyn’s system revolved, said that even when “he” hurt her, she would crawl back onto his lap and trust again. Rosie never revealed who the “he” was, and for years Lyn resisted believing that Rosie was any more than a figment of her imagination, even as the evidence stacked up all around her. Rosie remembers who hurt her, but Lyn does not.
Snake, a personality whose job was to slither into people Lyn began to trust and dissect their true intentions, claimed to have been created in the moment of the first penetration and fled the body to escape the searing pain of rape. Visceral, cunning, and sly, he did not care if Lyn died, because he abided in a realm outside of her body. Snake held rage and was devoted to protecting Lyn’s children, ready to shoot venom into anyone that would harm them. Snake knew about the rape so Lyn would not know.
In this book, you’ll meet more than ten distinct personalities who began to surface when Lyn was in her mid-thirties, happily married and mothering four young children in a yellow-brick house in a leafy suburban community. She had no conscious memory of having been abused as a child, but during the firestorm of betrayal and upheaval when her husband admitted and then defended his infidelity, the internal walls that kept the trauma-formed personalities hidden from her awareness began to crack, the fissures resulting in a bewildering array of voices with divergent thoughts and emotions, held loosely in check by an exhausted mediator who was trying to keep the internal family functioning while Lyn’s own family was falling apart.
Over ten years, her family would disintegrate as Lyn fiercely struggled to understand what was happening to her and tried her best to parent her children in increasingly difficult financial and emotional circumstances.
With heartbreaking courage, she writes: “Each of us would leave the yellow-brick house, one by one, broken, just a shadow of who we thought we were. And it was all my fault.”
As the founder of a nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing child sexual abuse and offering collective healing journeys for survivors, I can say without hesitation that this is a life-changing book—for survivors, for those who love them, and for anyone who wants to educate themselves on trauma-induced dissociation, particularly its manifestation as DID. Unlike the dramatic renderings of multiple personalities depicted by Hollywood, survivors with varying degrees of dissociation and DID are all around us. We are mothers, teachers, professors, therapists, pastors, and business executives. It is a real miracle that we have survived, largely in part to our ability to dissociate under extreme duress. Our bodies and minds remember—even when we don’t.
Lancaster County is home to the largest Amish population in the United States with 40,525 Amish in 2020. Yet they are greatly underserved in accessing resources to help them prevent the alarmingly high prevalence of sexual abuse of children in their community.
Although published large scale studies in this population do not exist, we have good reason to believe that rates are significantly higher than those cited in the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (22% of boys, 25% of girls). In fact, Amish we talk to frankly admit that child sexual abuse is “out of control” in their schools and communities.
Our meetings in Amish homes continued to increase during 2021. We have gathered with more than 125 Amish in small groups in barns, around kitchen tables, and on front porches to hear their stories. As we become known as trustworthy people, we receive calls from Amish we’ve never met with, asking for our help.
We are figuring out with them how to change the part of their culture that enables abuse to happen, silences women and parents who speak out, and often fails to hold perpetrators accountable to outside authority, enabling them to continue intergenerational cycles of abuse in a community which has the most rapidly increasing birth rate in Lancaster County.
In August I was invited to speak at the “A Better Way” conference in Clinton County hosted by an Amish couple. About 70 people showed up for two days of sharing stories, inspiration, hope and education. In addition to talking about the health impacts of child sexual abuse in mid-life adults, I also spoke on “Hope and Resistance” among the Amish in Lancaster County. And that is the best way I can describe what is happening here: Amish are resisting the old ways of dealing with abuse, and hope for change is emerging as people realize that it no longer needs to be this way.
We are also working with others in the “English” community to change the part of our culture that too often fails to protect abused children and women out of deference for the Amish culture, and misplaced trust in a male religious hierarchy. This is where the Plain Communities Task Force we helped found in early 2020 is becoming a great asset, as it includes other organizations and individuals.
As we speak with our Amish friends and neighbors, clear themes emerged. These include growing distrust of designated committees of elite religious leaders tasked with handling allegations of abuse. Although they appear outwardly compliant with mandatory reporting, and the law, nearly all the Amish we have met with tell us the reality is quite different, and that many religious leaders who are mandated reporters do not contact Childline nor do they contact police when it warranted.
In addition, when women suffer abuse from their husbands, the response from the religious hierarchy is almost always to admonish her to be a better wife and submit – including in cases where children are also being abused. The rare brave woman who gets a Protection from Abuse Order from the court is guaranteed to incur the wrath of church leaders.
We have listened to woman after woman recount chilling tales of retaliation for trying to protect their children or themselves by “going outside” for help. In a recent incident, a group of religious leaders came to the home of an Amish couple whose young daughters were sexually assaulted in school threatening them with loss of church membership if they cooperated with the report a non-Amish counselor had made to Childline. Loss of church membership has economic and social consequences that terrify many people into submitting.
Some women have literally been taken against their will by religious leaders and put into Amish run “mental health” facilities and medicated until they learn to be silent about abuse. Because of the power these leaders hold to excommunicate people from the church, the women often end up signing papers to ‘consent’ to treatment they do not want – or even need.
Last summer, we sat on the 2nd floor of a barn, sweltering in summer heat with women who wanted to tell their stories. One young woman nursing a baby recounted how she had been raped by her father as a girl. She grew strong enough to want to do something about it. She and her mother filed a police report in early 2021. She was well within the statute of limitations for filing criminal charges. However, after a conversation with her father, who denied the rape with his bishop supporting him, the young mother was told by the police officer that the case was dropped and she should work with her religious leaders to resolve the situation.
Others tell us similar stories, saying the outside help they turn to ends up going back to their religious leaders and asking them to deal with the situation, out of respect for the Amish way of life.
One woman said it bluntly: “Tell them not to 'respect' us so much! We are people too, and we are hurting. We need help!”
"Tell them not to 'respect' us so much!
We are people too, and we are hurting. We need help!”
Fortunately, we more men and a growing number of pastors are choosing to work with us, despite the pressure of the committees to retain the status quo. Following a meeting primarily attended by Amish men where we heard multiple disclosures of abuse and silencing of victims, one man said: “We can't do things like we did 60 years ago, so what do we do now? It's time our people get open to having some education about this stuff so it can be different."
We have deep respect for the Amish and their culture, much of which is life-affirming and beautiful. They have welcomed us into their homes, sharing food, stories, tears and their hope for change. As we provide education to prevent child sexual abuse and offer support to victims, we combine trauma-informed and evidenced based models with a faith perspective. There are multiple places in Biblical texts where protection of the vulnerable “little ones”, healing for those who have been harmed, and liberation from unjust oppression by those who hold power hold the promise of hope for a different and better kind of future.
Change is always hard and usually resisted by those with authority who are satisfied with the status quo. We have no power to change Amish culture. However, by walking with and supporting Amish who are no longer content to be silent about the way abuse is handled in their communities, and by offering much needed resources, we can help them to bring about the change they want to see.
Learn more about our work with Amish and the Plain Community Task Force here.
March 1, 2021
At Safe Communities, we hear from many survivors of child sexual abuse (CSA) about providers of
mental, dental, and medical care who fall far short of their claims to be “trauma-informed”. It has
become so ubiquitous to hang a “trauma-informed” label around a professional practice that one
would expect things had improved dramatically. Most CSA survivors are still waiting for that to
happen – and in the meantime, often foregoing much needed treatment because the risk of retraumatization by a provider is too high.
I am not speaking about the obviously egregious violations such as sexual boundary crossing, but
the every-day ways that licensed, credentialed providers fail to meet the basic safety requirements
of adult survivors of CSA, who have unique needs that are not addressed by a “one size fits all”
approach. What may be trauma-informed treatment for a combat vet, a natural disaster victim,
someone who suffered physical abuse in childhood, or even an individual who experiences rape
for the first time as an adult does not easily transfer into knowledge about adult survivors of CSA.
The Trauma-Informed PA plan Governor Tom Wolf released in 2020 does nothing to address this
specific population, but once again sweeps everyone who has suffered various types of childhood
trauma into one bucket of what are called Adverse Childhood Experiences. It recognizes the
cultural and historical traumas of racism, generations of poverty and other systemic issues but fails
to address the systemic intergenerational sexual trauma that impacts one in four girls and one in
six boys in childhood, crossing all boundaries of race, economic status, gender or class.
Childhood sexual abuse is recognized as a distinct form of maltreatment with unique interpersonal
characteristics (e.g., boundary violations, betrayal, sexual traumatization, stigma, secrecy) that
result in developmental consequences not associated with other forms of maltreatment. As such,
a large body of literature has documented negative psychological outcomes for sexually abused
children. There is also evidence that CSA is more strongly linked to later mental health problems
than other forms of abuse. Estimates suggest that approximately 37% to 53% of sexually abused
children eventually develop PTSD and research shows that most of these kids, when referred to
treatment, have experienced partial PTSD symptoms. Sexual abuse has been associated with
traumatic reactions that may include re-experiencing the abuse through memories or dreams and
actively attempting to avoid situations or stimuli that remind them of the abuse. i
These survivors have unique needs for control in relationship and do not fare well under the
hierarchical model of many professional practices. In a trauma-informed, provider-patient
relationship, Harris and Fallot (2001) point out that leaders must also act to create safety by
“eradicating the traditional service relationship that replicates some of the most damaging
dynamics of childhood trauma … in that, survivors must often accept an unequal relationship in
order to avoid worse treatment”.ii
In addition, it is not adequate for a provider within a practice to be trauma-informed if the practice
or organization around them is not.
A wrong look or insensitive comment – real or imagined – from a receptionist having a bad day, as
an example, can derail the treatment process for survivors who quickly move into fight, flight, or
freeze mode. Survivors ready for care then interact with a stressed organizational system not
prepared to deliver treatment.iii
The physical environment itself must be carefully evaluated and adjustments made if a provider is
to be trusted by survivors. Waiting areas must be welcoming, soothing, and comfortable - not cold,
clinical, and crowded. Survivors describe practices with waiting rooms akin to impersonal airport
boarding areas. In fact, the pandemic necessitated six feet of distance between waiting patients
has been a real blessing for many survivors, as has Telehealth. Finally, easy trauma triggers like
directing a survivor to sit on a chair or lie on a table in a treatment room where they cannot see
who is entering through the door, can be avoided.
Loud noises such as a dental drill, feeling “trapped” in a closed MRI, or being told to position their
body or mouth in some particular way can also be highly problematic for survivors.
The touching involved in dental and some medical treatment must be carefully explained before
contact is made, consent must be obtained, and the survivor given explicit permission to tell the
provider to STOP at any time. Even minor touching such as a pat on the shoulder should be
avoided, as should a provider getting in too close of a proximity to a survivor while discussing their
Furthermore, a considerable percentage of CSA survivors are highly dissociative. Do not expect
them to be able to easily navigate their way through a large complex of parking lots, hallways, and
closed doors. Confusion can trigger dissociation, and the adult wandering through your complex
may be “seeing” with the eyes of a six-year-old. Provide detailed step-by-step instructions about
how to find your office. Do not expect survivors to “remember” what you say as they can be easily
overwhelmed by a perceived “powerful” person. Write down important things you would like
them to think about for future treatment or discussion.
One would think that at least mental heath providers would be relatively equipped to offer a
trauma-informed environment and treatment to survivors of CSA. Unfortunately, that is not the
case. Very few clinicians have advanced training in treatment of adult survivors of CSA. Those who
do are increasingly moving away from taking insurance into cash-pay only. And this problem does
not exist simply in small cities or rural communities, but in big metropolises as well.
I once searched for days, using all the mental health professional connections I could muster, to
find a qualified clinician to treat a friend who was just starting to deal with recognizing that she
had been sexually molested as a child. She lived in a community just outside an upscale
metropolitan area – and nearly all the clinicians who specialized in treating adult survivors were
booked for months ahead or were “cash only” at several hundred dollars per session. Ultimately, I
managed to find a skilled provider who was a ‘friend of a friend” who agreed to see her very
quickly. While I was relieved for my friend, I again faced the fact that it does quite often take this
exhaustive search for a “unicorn” to find good care for a survivor of CSA.
Finally, it is worth saying that there are a few providers whose capacity for a non-hierarchical
healing relationship with clients is so immense that they can navigate the complex dynamics with
CSA survivors even without advanced specialty training. I have been privileged to know a handful
in my lifetime, and they are “rare gems.” These are people who can accompany survivors into their
horrific memories of childhood sexual abuse time and again without pulling back to save
themselves from the pain of hearing the atrocities a human being can inflict on a defenseless child;
who articulate a strong and clear advocacy for the survivor that clearly communicates they are on
their “side” and are not concerned with ‘fairness’ for the offender; who are willing to stay with the
survivor for the long haul – often measured in years of intense and under-reimbursed treatment;
who go the extra mile with communication outside office hours when it’s needed while keeping
appropriate boundaries in a way that teaches what healthy and flexible boundaries actually are.
But it should not take a search for a unicorn or discovery of a rare gem for survivors to feel safe in
a provider’s environment and to receive survivor-sensitive care. I call on Governor Wolf to address
this critical gap in the 2020 PA Trauma Informed plan, on insurance companies to recognize the
need for highly skilled long term affordable treatment, and for all providers to learn what it means
to be “trauma informed” for the roughly 25% of your patients who carry the deep and invisible
wounds of childhood sexual abuse.
We want to hear from you!
If you are a survivor, we would love to hear about your personal experiences in trying to access
trauma informed care. Please email email@example.com and enter “Trauma Informed
Care” in the subject line.
We also encourage any provider who wants to learn more about this issue to get in touch.
i EmilyTrask, Kate Walsh & David DiLillo (2011) Treatment Effects for Common Outcomes of Child Sexual Abuse - Current Meta-Analysis, Aggression & Violent Behavior
ii Jacqueline S. Barnes & Morgan Andrews (2019) Meeting Survivors Where They Are: The Vital Role of
Trauma-Informed and Competent Clinicians in Primary Care, Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment &
Trauma, 28:5, 601-612, DOI: 10.1080/10926771.2019.15875
The terror and agony faced by four-year old Jessica Mast as her parents and another couple beat her every day for two weeks in the name of “godly discipline” is unimaginable to most people – except for survivors of religions that embed submission and obedience to the “will of the father” into daily practices for women and girls, reinforced with bodily terrorism if necessary. Jessica will never be one of those survivors because in the end, after yet another beating with her father’s belt, her little head was held beneath the icy water of a pond. She was dragged to the bank and left there to freeze.
You might be tempted to write this off as mental illness of the murderers, or to a horrific and unexplainable anomaly. Please don’t. While mental illness may be in play here and most cases of child abuse do not end in death – what happened here was years in the making, as the adults who killed her, while also beating her two-year-old sister and at times, her mother – were products of a conservative Plain culture where physical abuse of children to break their will is broadly accepted. The church all four adults attended, unsurprisingly, has distanced itself from any responsibility for this child’s death. According to the Sheriff, the actions leading to her death are “not condoned” by the church.
They do not call it abuse, of course, but use terms like spanking and discipline. Let us be clear: removing a little girl’s clothing and beating her bare buttocks with a belt, wooden spoon, or some other implement is a form of sexual terrorism. What else does one call it when a private and sexual part of the body is exposed and subjected to humiliating and severe pain?
The social media world of conservative Plain survivors of child sexual abuse exploded with anguished cries and an outpouring of stories from those who suffered assaults like Jessica’s as news of her murder became known a few days before Christmas. Stories of being stripped and beaten by their fathers poured forth as women (and some men) recounted being assaulted by the same fathers who then asserted their patriarchal privilege to sexually abuse them. (See A Better Way Facebook page for several examples; see also Splash4Ripples for some backstory. Both are run by Plain survivors.)
Little Jessica was also punished by being sexually violated by adults as others watched. Convinced that she had her mother’s evil within her, these adults were determined to save her soul by breaking her will through terrorizing her body. Despite two weeks of torture, this small child still must have had some spark of life in her eyes, and her will was not sufficiently broken. One of the adults recounted how she ran around the table, trying to escape her father’s belt. For this, they killed her.
Our work to end child sexual abuse has multiple intersections. One of the most critical is changing a patriarchal culture that elevates male leadership and normalizes using power and severe abusive processes to maintain a hierarchy of supremacy and control. Ground zero for maintaining this culture through generations is asserting dominance over children by subjecting them to severe physical pain, thereby teaching them that obedience and submission to power is valued over any semblance of consent and bodily integrity.
When a small girl is divested of her clothes and beaten by a powerful adult in her life – and this is condoned by her culture as normal - is it much of a stretch to imagine she would have even an inkling that rape is also not condoned?
Consider this: A small girl is ordered to remove her clothes and expose herself to be beaten on what we teach children is a “private part” (the area covered by your bathing suit) by a powerful adult. Everyone within the family or church can hear her screams (and yes, some conservative churches have rooms for “disciplining” children, and unless they are sound proofed, everyone knows what is happening). When it is over, everyone acts like nothing has happened. So, when that same influential adult (or another person in charge) pulls that girl into a room and uses her for sexual gratification, do you really think she is going to believe it is not condoned by everyone around her?
She will likely keep quiet, and suffer in the coming years with depression, anxiety, thoughts of suicide, perhaps PTSD. She may become so emotionally numb by the time she is a mother; she will be unable to comfort her own daughter who one day comes back from the barn claiming her brother or uncle touched her. She will probably tell her child to dry her tears and advise “that’s just how things are”.
If we refuse to protect the integrity of children’s bodies legally and socially, there will be tens of thousands more survivors of childhood trauma, many of whom will go on to reenact their own experiences with their children. Inevitably, a good number of them will vigorously defend all forms of corporal punishments to children to force obedience, even when discussing stories like little Jessica’s. Their claims of being “just fine” despite having been subjected to bodily harm in the name of discipline are (sadly) refuted by their lack of capacity for empathy with the beaten children.
As a survivor of sexual and physical abuse in a religious family which I recount in my book “The Deepest Wound” (2001, Writers’ Showcase) I have some idea of the pure terror Jessica must have felt as she desperately and futilely tried to protect her small body from the mind-crushing pain. Anguish like that is so huge it swallows you up, takes you into a different world, and if the gods are merciful, removes you from your body for a time.
I can only pray the gods were benevolent to Jessica and before her last breath, she was swept up into that other world and at the end - she felt no pain.
Various news sources have reported on this story; few links are noted below:
As a woman survivor of childhood sexual and other violence, and the founder of Safe Communities, I am committed to changing the cultural conditions that allow the sexual violation of children to continue, and survivors to be disbelieved and shamed. But as heavy and challenging as that work is, it is not enough. As a white leader of a nonprofit, its critical I also work to change the cultural norms that allow racism to continue, the most extreme and heart wrenching examples being the killing of unarmed Black people, including children, at the hands of police and extrajudicial groups of white men. And that means living more fully into the complicated intersection of ending sexual violence and racism.
While legislative changes are necessary, and police reform is critical, we simply can’t criminal justice our way out of this. We can’t just get rid of the “bad apples” in policing or the “predators” in churches, schools, organizations and communities. No amount of police reform or mandated reporter or diversity or anti-sexual harassment training will change the fundamental problem. To stop sexual and racial violence, we must change the cultural historical norms that allow them to operate. Problems that are systemic cannot be fixed using the same systems and mindsets that created them.
I have spent decades working with congregations and other organizations trying to change what many call “rape culture” which persists despite some good legislative changes. The sexual violation of children and women (and some men) is embedded in systems of patriarchy where men hold power and privilege. Which is the case across most sectors in this country. A church or workplace culture that makes men – especially white men - most comfortable is normed and their abuse of power over more vulnerable people is routine. What makes it hideous is that people who benefit from patriarchal and white dominant systems inflict death by a thousand cuts on a daily basis to people of color and women who try to assert their own power, and seem oblivious about the harm they do.
Until they kill somebody, and maybe not even then.
I have heard the pain and held healing space to the best of my capacity for Black clergy leaders serving in white dominant culture congregations or judicatories who suffer a near daily stream of racially biased comments, opinions and directives from white people who pride themselves on being “inclusive” because they called a person of color to leadership. That person is fine until they begin to actually assert some leadership and then suddenly, he or she is not “one of us”.
I have heard the pain of young Black leaders in social justice nonprofits that have anti-racism and anti-sexual violence programs who are marginalized and disrespected within these very organizations. For example, a brilliant younger Black man I am trying my best to mentor as he navigates out of a rape crisis center and create his own nonprofit to end sexual violence describes the staff meetings he attends as “sitting at the table with Donald Trump”. As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse himself and as a Black man, he is deemed too sensitive and too passionate about the need to change the racist culture of the organization, whose leaders don’t think they have a problem. They think HE is the problem. Listening to his pain hurts my heart, and I am inspired and amazed at his tenacity and faith as he tries to navigate the dangerous waters and found a new organization based on real justice and liberation.
And I have heard countless women leaders of many colors who have been traumatized by gaslighting, bullying, withdrawal of resources, sexual harassment and more, primarily from white male leaders. I include myself among these women. Often these men are supported by women who align themselves with male power within patriarchal systems as a mean of gaining or holding onto their own. I find this especially heartbreaking and infuriating in equal measure.
One of the problems is that most organizations, agencies and churches silo issues such as ending child sexual abuse and the gendered inequities that are the fruit of patriarchal structures turn these issues into programs, rather than integrate them into the social norms of their cultures.
This is also a core problem we face in ending racism. Nonprofits, including the faith-based sector, are notorious for claiming they are not racially biased because they tokenize hiring people of color while maintaining a culture that is normative for white people. If people of color or survivors of sexual violence get too noisy or have strong opinions about what needs to change, they are viewed as “not a good cultural fit” and invited or forced to leave. Safety and belonging are conditioned upon not confronting the usually indirect but very painful sexist and racist comments or actions at the staff meeting or the water cooler. This is an endemic cultural problem that will not be solved with new laws or training.
Many of the institutions and organizations I have worked in or with consider themselves progressive or even liberal. Most are led by white, privileged heteronormative men. It is rare to find one who truly understands their privilege and shares their power with women and people of color to actively deconstruct sexist and racist norms. Most of them resist the real cultural change that is demanded if they are to truly be safe spaces for people of color, for women, for children, for survivors.
These leaders will tell you, with a straight and earnest face, that they simply can’t find any qualified people of color for their boards. Nor can they seem to find any strong women who recognize abuse of power when they see it and hold the leaders who harm accountable. Since board members are often recruited from white dominant and business class cultures, they are inclined to believe in hierarchical and power-over systems rooted in a 1950s model of governance.
They will claim to be colorblind and have Black friends - which by itself demonstrates they have no clue about systemic racism. They will raise their voices in public disgust at a Harvey Weinstein but will remain silent about a Brent Cavanagh. Now, many are issuing public statements that “Black Lives Matter”. I’ve got some serious déjà vu as I consider the many public statements about “believing woman” when the roar of the #MeToo movement swept through places of power – until the protests died down, the stories slowed, and the systems began to reset, to go back to the status quo of requiring there be three or ten or twenty women who say they were sexually abused or harassed or assaulted by a powerful man before they become credible.
And maybe not even then.
We need to listen to the youth that have a moral code that drives them to the streets to demand justice on so many fronts where we have failed them.
We need to listen to our children, who have truth to tell us we may not want to hear, given that one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually violated before they are 18 years old.
We need to listen to Black leaders. We need to listen to women survivors of sexual and gendered violence. We need to listen to people of color. These are the people we need to lead our organizations, our boards, our communities. It means we have to be willing to shift power to people of color, to survivors of sexual and gendered violence, to youth.
This is a call to all leaders, especially those in the nonprofit, philanthropic, and public service sectors. It does not matter what your mission is. If it is not big enough to include racial justice, gender equity, and stopping sexual violence, you are on the wrong side of history.
I expect most of you will instead stay exactly where you are and, at best, try to program or tokenize your way out of this rather than face into the deep transformative change that is needed. Please prove me wrong!
by Linda Crockett
As a survivor, I am leading Safe Communities. Working with friends, partners and allies, we exist to end child sexual abuse and to create healing spaces for survivors – and that will not stop even as we live in this time of a global pandemic, which is scary for everyone.
The virus is an invisible enemy that we can’t control, even as we try frantically to reduce risk through various tactics. No one is immune. Low-wage or hourly/contracted employees are particularly vulnerable economically. Older adults and those with underlying medical conditions are more vulnerable to severe illness, based on what we know right now. Less discussed has been the psychological vulnerability of survivors of sexual violence.
Many survivors of sexual abuse and assault do their best every single day to live with the long-term impacts of trauma - such as PTSD, acute anxiety, and depression. It is not uncommon for survivors to have a high need for control, given that our bodies were broken into. For many who were violated repeatedly as children, the break-ins were a continual theft, leaving our spirits in a state of homelessness when our bodies became occupied territory.
Although human beings have a basic and healthy need for a degree of control over their lives, the need by survivors often slides to an extreme version on the spectrum, in order to manage their trauma sensitized nervous systems. Some of us are extreme planners, making sure we not only have a Plan B, but also a C and D for any possible contingency. Those who have been lucky enough to acquire a tool box for healing have healthy self-care practices we can call upon that work at least some of the time so we don’t turn to unhealthy methods, which includes too much alcohol, over-medicating, risky behavior, isolating and self-harm.
Some of us are able to manage our chronic PTSD or anxiety fairly well for years until we are hit with an unexpected triggering event that destabilizes our physical and emotional selves. Basic bodily functions such as eating, elimination, sleep and more are all heavily impacted when PTSD is your dance partner. Psychological disruption runs the room with everything from emotional meltdowns to immobilization to your thinking brain suddenly going off-line. The trigger often has to do with a loss of control - a sudden job loss, severe injury or illness, divorce, moving and a multitude of other curves life throws at us. While these are anxiety producing events for non-traumatized people, for survivors it may mean a plunge into a reactivated trauma mode.
As though all this was not enough, many survivors of sexual abuse are exquisitely attuned to social, cultural, or political changes that may adversely affect them and the people they love. That attunement was often developed out of necessity in childhood. The powerful people in our lives - those that controlled our households, schools, churches and other places where we were supposed to be safe but were not - betrayed our trust in the systems around us either through active perpetration of harm or failure to protect. Just as we were once attuned to the micro-movements in a perpetrators face that could signal danger was coming, we are attuned to even the faintest whisper of approaching harm. We feel it in our bodies, and with survivor super-powers – we brace or numb ourselves.
A pandemic is no longer a distant threat, but a real and present danger for everyone. Fear is a rational response, even as we try to remain calm and manage our anxiety.
For survivors, however, the psychological impact is exponential and may be a major trigger. We are faced with loss of control over our daily lives as powerful people who did not do nearly enough to protect us at the first warning signs now issue orders that close our schools and workplaces, tell us to isolate ourselves as much as possible, and close recreational and social gathering venues that were part of our trauma-management toolboxes.
So, this is hard. But survivors can DO hard. It’s why we are still here. Kind of like dandelions.
Some people get really annoyed at our existence – especially when we insist on truth-telling, accountability, and justice. They mow us down, again and again. But the wind keeps spreading our seed, and we pop up in new places. Some of the survivors we work with are incredible leaders in their communities and organizations - resilient, strong warriors for justice on small and large scales.
We may need to practice social isolation in real time; but we can find alternative pathways to come together and create circles of wisdom and healing in virtual space.
We need each other.
Our communities need survivor wisdom on how to get through these scary times. We are grateful for the community we have, and we look forward to how this community will grow and support each other during the current pandemic.
Love and Light,
Reposted from the blog of Humanitarian Social Innovations on 1/2/2020, written by Carina Bonasera.
Humanitarian Social Innovations is excited to welcome Safe Communities to our network of social entrepreneurs.
As a new year — and decade — begins, Humanitarian Social Innovations is excited to introduce Safe Communities to our network. The group works to prevent and address child sexual abuse (CSA), educate churches and youth-serving organizations about keeping children safe, and provide resources for survivors of abuse to heal.
The statistics on child sexual abuse are jarring. Studies indicate that up to 25 percent of girls and 20 percent of boys may be sexually assaulted before the age of 18, and most of the time, the abuser is someone that they know and trust. While institutions like churches and youth groups are supposed to be safe places, oftentimes, they can actually enable abuse.
Safe Communities’ mission is to end child sexual abuse and support survivors through the healing process.
The organization started out as Samaritan Safe Church in 2011, founded by Linda Crockett, a nationally recognized leader in CSA prevention. It rapidly grew from a small community group in Lancaster, PA, into a movement with multiple partner groups and satellite “hubs” functioning across states and regions. As the group expanded, it also launched the program Safe Places to help youth-serving organizations outside of faith groups tackle child abuse prevention through workshops and staff and volunteer training.
Now, looking forward into a new decade, the nonprofit is growing its reach even further by partnering with HSI and working toward becoming an independent entity with greater power to end child sexual abuse.
“Since its inception, Safe Church/Safe Places has continued to expand its presence at the forefront of the emerging social justice movement to end child sex abuse,” Crockett said. “We realized that it was time to transition to an independent entity. The demand for our services grows daily and an autonomous structure will allow us to maximize our capacity to respond to this tremendous need in the most efficient way possible.”
A Multifaceted Approach to Ending Abuse
“Sexual violence, particularly at a young age, derails the trajectory of a promising young life from that of one who believes they can do anything to one who believes they can do nothing — and in fact, believes they are worth nothing,” said Lizz Durbin, Creative Director and Program Administrator at Safe Communities. She noted that survivors often struggle emotionally and with unhealthy behaviors later in life as a result of childhood abuse.
The group is passionate about putting a stop to this tragic pattern, and developed a variety of programs and resources to achieve that goal. They work with youth organizations to develop policies and models that keep children safe; offer consultation services; and provide education and workshops that teach institutions, staff, volunteers, parents and children how to prevent abuse.
“Safe Communities is focused on the institutions that surround children and families — camps, youth programs, schools, churches and other faith groups — and how they can become sites of safety and protection for children, rather than falling into the far-too-common patterns of avoiding the issue, pretending the only risk is strangers, silencing victims, prioritizing the reputation of powerful adults or the institution itself, and other ways that institutions enable abuse,” Durbin said.
The work of Safe Communities has not only been instrumental in helping churches and communities prevent abuse; it has also opened the door for survivors to tell their stories and begin the process of healing through support groups for survivors and their allies. The groups include Circle of Hope, a group for adult survivors; Resilience Cohort, a monthly gathering for survivors; and Rising Together, for parents of abused children.
“Circle of Hope gave me an opportunity to slowly tell my story — the one I had been told to forget — to a group of survivors who understood the shame, fear, self-destruction and anger that had held me in captivity for years,” one anonymous survivor shared with Safe Communities. “The safety I experienced in the circle allowed me to release both the story and the stress created by holding my suffering in silence. I am very grateful for the way this has changed my life.”
Safe Communities is dedicated to helping more and more survivors heal, but is challenged to procure the funding to run its programs and keep resources free for survivors and youth organizations. With help from donors, the nonprofit hopes to continue to grow and see a world where child sexual abuse no longer exists.
by Victoria Gehman, Safe Communities Social Work Intern
With the holidays quickly approaching, a vast variety of emotions can surface. For some, this time of year evokes excitement. For others, it may be mostly happiness mixed with some stress - stress because of trying to prepare a meal and get the house clean on time. Or maybe it's stress due to the struggle to be kind to that one in-law. For still others, the holidays can be one of the most lonely and difficult times of the year. Maybe it's the husband whose wife died a couple years ago, and, without her, he has no family left and just can't seem to get in the holiday spirit anymore. Maybe it's the sick woman who is bedridden in a hospital and neglected by family. Perhaps it's the foster child who has aged out of the foster care system and isn't sure if she has a place to call home where she could go for the holidays. Or perhaps it's the survivor of child sexual abuse who dreads the holidays for a myriad of reasons.
These are all people whom we should be considerate of during the holidays, but today I'd like to take a few moment to focus specifically on the survivor. The holiday season can be very triggering for many survivors. Often, the abuser was someone close to the survivor - many times a family member. The survivor may dread holiday gatherings as it forces her to see her abuser, yet she may feel as if she is compelled to attend. Or maybe she has chosen to avoid the unhealthy relationships, but then where would she go? Who would she spend the holidays with? Even if one does not have to see his abuser, he could still be triggered by certain smells, songs, or activities that occur around the holidays. Maybe a certain song played in the background during a particularly traumatic encounter. Maybe the survivor has even come to hate a particular food because it's what she was eating on the day she was first molested. Perhaps making gingerbread houses causes anxiety because he remembers what happened after the gingerbread houses were made and he was alone with his uncle while everyone else was admiring the cousins' gingerbread creations.
Many survivors will experience some kind of trigger or increased anxiety at some point during the holiday season. Even if the abuse occurred years ago, don't assume they are okay. Often, these triggers will occur at unexpected times, and they may be different from year to year. Just because they appear okay on the outside and just because they haven't said anything to you doesn't meant they're doing fine. They could be very lonely inside - but are just too afraid to tell you. Or they don't want to bother you, as they feel they would be interrupting your festivities with your family. They truly are happy that you are having a good time. But sometimes that increases their loneliness - especially throughout the holiday season as their friends may become busier and preoccupied with their own family celebrations.
Often, the holidays are the time of year when survivors most need support, yet it is also the time of year when they are often the most lacking in support. Trusted friends travel to another state, the friends that do stay in the area are too busy to meet up or even call, counselors and therapists go on vacation... At times, this causes survivors to feel forgotten.
So, what can you do to help?
Here are a few practical suggestions:
1) Check in on them from time to time. Even just a simple text saying, "Hey, I know this time of year can be really tough for you, and I just wanted to let you know that I haven't forgotten about you. I love you" can go a long way.
2) If you're baking cookies and wouldn't mind some extra company, invite them. They may or may not take you up on the offer, but either way they will likely appreciate that you thought of them and cared enough to ask.
3) Even if you're just cleaning the house or preparing for a meal, but could use some help, ask them if they want to come help you clean or play with your kids while you clean. Depending on the person, this can be a welcome invitation as it helps them to forget the loneliness and memories for a time and allows them to instead do something meaningful for someone else, while also benefiting from time spent with safe people.
4) Even if you are away or don't have much time to talk with them, ask them how they are doing. Remind them that they are safe, but that their pain is valid. Allow them to share it with you when they need to, and be honored that they have chosen to trust you with some of their deepest hurts.
Throughout this holiday season - whether you're at a family gathering, a work party, a friend's house, or getting your shopping done at the mall - just be sensitive. Remember that there may be a lot more going on underneath the surface than what someone presents on the outside. Just a little bit of kindness goes a long way and could even make someone's unhappy holiday just a tad bit happier.
By Linda Crockett, Director of Safe Communities
In the state of Pennsylvania, some adults are considered mandated reporters of suspected child abuse.
These include individuals holding some specific roles (such as doctors, clergy, school employees and others) but also any adult (age 18+) who comes into contact with children in the course of their work or professional practice, or an individual, paid or unpaid, who, on the basis of their role as an integral part of a regularly scheduled program, activity or service, is a person responsible for the care, guidance, supervision or control of children.
Many adult volunteers in churches and youth serving organizations are mandated reporters. Although this inclusion of volunteers as mandated reporters took place in 2014, our Safe Communities organization continues to work with many churches and youth serving organizations that have not caught up with major change.
A point of confusion for some mandated, and non-mandated reporters, is that one does not need to be certain or have evidence that abuse has occurred in order to make a report. Like many other states, Pennsylvania uses the term “reasonable cause to suspect” that a child has been abused as one of the thresholds that trigger a mandated report. This does not mean a reporter is to investigate or be certain abuse has occurred. Determination of that is the job of case workers from Child Protective Services that investigate suspected child abuse, in conjunction with law enforcement.
“Reasonable cause to suspect” is not precisely defined under the law. A general rule of thumb is that it is more than a “gut feeling” but less than a certainty. It takes into consideration things like what you know about the situation and context, behavioral red flags that are possible indicators of various types of abuse, what the child or others have told you, and additional factors.
Pennsylvania’s standard for reporting suspected abuse is that the reporter shall make an “immediate” report. Like “reasonable cause to suspect,” immediate is not precisely defined under the law but a rule of thumb is 24 hours at the latest, or much sooner if the child is at imminent risk of suffering more abuse if you delay reporting.
When the reporter knows and respects the alleged offender, which is not uncommon in churches and organizations, it can cloud judgement of whether abuse could be possible. Using a reasonable cause standard when this is the case is to think about whether a neutral person who had the same information you did about the child would find it reasonable to suspect abuse may have occurred. If in doubt - report it.
There is a world of difference between making a “false” report (which is a crime) and making a report in good faith when you suspect abuse (in which the reporter is protected under the law). False reports are rare, and they typically are an attempt by one individual to ‘retaliate’ against another for some reason.
The basis to report in Pennsylvania is that a mandated reporter shall make a report of suspected child abuse (in accordance with Section 6313) if the mandated reporter has reasonable cause to suspect that a child is a victim of child abuse under any of the following circumstances:
The child is not required to come before the mandated reporter for the reporter to make a report of suspected child abuse. This was also a major change enacted in 2014.
Of course, keeping children safe from harm is the responsibility of all caring adults in a community. You don’t have to be a mandated reporter to make a report of suspected or disclosed child abuse. Anyone concerned about possible abuse can make a confidential report by calling Childline at 1-800-932-0313.
Learn more at Pennsylvania’s KeepKidsSafe website: http://keepkidssafe.pa.gov/
In July of 2011, just two years into my new role as minister, a victim disclosed to me that she had been sexually abused by my father, the former preacher at my congregation. Within seconds, my life began to unravel. My childhood hero was now a villain who had dozens of victims–all of whom were humiliated and violated in the worst possible way,” said Pastor Jimmy Hinton who blogs at www.jimmyhinton.org.
Jimmy Hinton’s dad is serving a 30-60-year sentence for sex crimes against dozens of children. A recent blog post he wrote titled “Why Chaperoning Abusers at Church is Unwise” got my attention, because our Safe Church program does include policy making around safely integrating sexual offenders into a congregation. In his post, Pastor Hinton critiques common “covenant” agreements churches make when including sex offenders in their congregation.
I don’t know Pastor Hinton, but I will say that he knows what he is talking about. The kind of “chaperoning” he describes is dangerous and naïve and does little to protect vulnerable children.
Studies have also shown that nearly 90% of convicted child sex offenders describe themselves as “very religious” and thought churches were easy to operate within. Many of them marry and some have children of their own. It is easy to prey on kids if you appear respectable, are a volunteer or church leader, and “speak Christianese.”
I will not argue with those who say that the greatest risk are the offenders who have not ever been caught. This is most definitely true, as child sexual abuse is a vastly underreported crime and prosecution is difficult, especially when the victims are very young. Many children do not disclose sexual violation until mid-life adulthood, if ever.
Safe Communities works with religious and non-religious institutions to protect kids from sexual harm. We have engaged thousands of people in congregations in our core Safe Church curriculum since creating it in 2011. (And NO, we are not one of “safe church” programs written by insurance companies or offered by some denominations). We are a third generation, social movement building, and culture shifting prevention program focused on preventing sexual abuse before it happens.
Our recommended practices and training on integrating “known” sexual offenders into a congregation have gotten more robust over the years, based on our experiences in the field. By “known”, I mean those who have been adjudicated by a court to have committed a sexual offense against a child under age 18. Integrating some offenders can be done safely and well, but it takes a considerable amount of time and resource. We have worked with churches that have successfully done this, but it cannot happen before the congregation, not just a few leaders, are educated about how to keep children safe from sexual harm – within and outside of the church.
The type of offender “covenant” Hinton described in his blog, and the laissez-faire prevention practices used by many churches, would in all probability not stop an offender like his father. Nor would it stop the offenders we have encountered in our Safe Church program who refuse to sign covenants we design because they are “too restrictive.” Big clue here: If a sex offender refuses to accept severe restrictions around interactions with kids, that’s a RED FLAG. Child sexual abuse at its core is about abuse of power and violation of boundaries.
For many congregations, offering hospitality to known sex offenders is based on their interpretations of biblical passages about forgiveness, restoration and grace. I cannot count the times I have heard leaders, when asked to establish very strict boundaries for participation of known sex offenders and be fully transparent with the congregation that an offender is worshipping among them, say something like “But he is a new man in Jesus! He has been washed clean of his sin, and we can’t shame him by disclosing his identity. We’ll just have the elders keep an eye on him and not let him lead in any children’s programs.”
This. Does. Not. Work.
Filled with the language of grace but very few actual restrictions and consequences for breaking the rules, these types of covenants put children and teens at risk – not only within the congregation but in the local community. Children are apt to believe this person is “safe” when they are groomed by him (or her) at church, the library, the park, or their sports team. After all, if he attends their church and no one has warned them he is NOT safe around kids, why wouldn’t a child believe the person to be “safe”?
For those not familiar with the term, ‘grooming’ is a strategic process many offenders use to gain a child’s trust and establish a non-sexual relationship in preparation for molestation. It may include grooming the target’s parents as well. Tragically, it usually works. 90% of children who are molested are not violated by strangers, but someone their family knows and trusts.
Parents who are not educated about offenders and how they operate will easily include these folks in their social circles beyond the church setting. We have healing groups for parents of kids who were sexually abused, many of them by someone the parents trusted at church. The impact on these parents is enormous and they often blame themselves.
A busy senior pastor in a large congregation with many children and teens said to me once “can’t you just give me something I can do in a few hours?”
The answer to that is no…not if you are serious about keeping kids safe. I wanted to ask him if the parents of the hundreds of kids entrusted to his programs understood that he had things more important to concern himself with than keeping their kids safe from sexual abuse. I wish I had.
Here are a few points for safety for including known child sexual offenders into a church congregation. This is not a “how to” guide or a comprehensive list.
We also have some inspiring stories to tell you about churches who have done the hard work of creating safe environments for children as well as empowering spaces for adult survivors.
We agree with you, Jimmy Hinton, and applaud the work you are doing to advocate against child sexual abuse and raise awareness about the tactics used by child molesters.