From The Desk Of Darlene J. Harris – Sex Abuse Impacts Children Removed from Their Homes
Now and then I like to share information from “And He Restoreth My Soul” and this is one of those times. Zelma R Harrison contributed the following article about children living in a group home setting, as well as what their lives were before coming into a group home setting.
At the time, the article was written Zelma and her sister co-owned and operated a couple of group homes in Northern California. Thus, her experience and knowledge with children before and after coming into a group home setting is very relevant to today’s society.
As always I wish you well during the upcoming holidays.
Sex Abuse Impacts Children Removed from Their Homes
by Zelma R. Harrison
Group Homes Take in the Abused from Dysfunctional Homes
In recent years there has been an increase in the number of group homes that have been licensed to care for minor children. Most of these homes care for children who are placed there by the Department of Social Services (Child Protective Services) or Juvenile Justice System.
The passage of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act of 1974 and the passage of mandatory reporting laws by all fifty states and the District of Columbia have played a large role in the increase of out-of-home placements. Still many of these children go unnoticed, undetected, or ignored before the traumatic damage of abuse has been buried below layers of emotional scars not readily visible to the lay person and which can take years of professional treatment to peel away.
Emotional Scars Produce a High Level of Pain
When a child is placed in out-of-home care, he/she comes with a certain amount of confidential background information that, after careful examination, provides only a glimpse of the depth of the emotional scars many of the children are carrying. Usually this information will reveal why the child is being placed outside of his or her natural home, a report on consultation and diagnosis, the kind of treatment, if any, that has been provided in the past, some family background history, and any legal action that has been taken on behalf of the child. More often then not, group homes are finding that many of these children have been both physically and sexually abused in addition to experiencing the neglect that usually justifies removal of a child from his/her home.
The reason for the abuse is not always known or understood, but sufficient evidence exists for a court order to turn over custody of these children to a governmental agency. Many times the custodial parent as well as the child will deny the charges even in the face of overwhelming evidence. The abuse may have come from outside the home but occurred because of emotional or physical neglect in the home.
More and more, drugs and alcohol are playing a large role in the abuse of children who have to be taken away from their parents. The demons of substance abuse take over and the parent is truly unable to care for and/or protect the children from the elements of the cold cruel environment into which they themselves have slipped. Other times, drugs and alcohol only serve to intensify an already established pattern of various kinds of abuse.
Sexual Abuse Is Difficult for a Child to Confront
From my experience, sexual abuse seems to be the most difficult for these children to confront from a realistic framework, especially if the predator is a parent, relative, or friend. Many of these children are in total denial of sexual abuse even when the law enforcement agency and the courts, through investigation, have substantiated the evidence and imposed legal action, including not allowing contact with the child and, in some cases, incarceration of the predator.
The pain of having to admit or hide the fact that someone who is viewed as a protector and provider has sexually abused him or her is too great a task for a child to try to understand and cope with. If they can successfully deny that it happened, it seems to ease some of their pain, so denial is often resorted to by a child who sees no other avenue of relief. The stress of dealing with emotional deprivation and physical separation from familiar surroundings greatly impacts the mental health of each child who comes into a group home.
Depending on the severity of the trauma experienced by the children, the group homes are expected to provide a therapeutic treatment plan by a mental-health professional for these children. There is, however, no prescribed spiritual treatment, but there is a requirement that provisions must be made for a child to practice his or her religion of choice. However, whatever religious affiliation the child may have had is usually lost in the efforts of that child trying to survive each day.
Christian Concerns for Sexually-Abused Children
For the Christian, who is also a care-provider for these children, their spiritual health is of grave concern. The services of religious leaders who are trained counselors can be utilized, but seldom are they trained in dealing with the sexual abuse of children. Mental-health professionals may or may not have the same view about a child’s spiritual health as the religious community has. Without this spiritual understanding, however, the care-provider and the therapist may very well be in conflict and rather than making a difference in these children’s lives, cause them more turmoil.
1. Evidence of Sexual Abuse to Recognize
a. Lashing Out at Anyone or Anything
The evidence of sexual abuse in these children is often seen in their lashing out at anyone or anything in an effort to protect themselves from what they cannot or feel they dare not reveal to anyone. It’s an abuse they cannot think about nor talk about for fear that the demons of depression they do not understand will consume their very beings.
b. Turning to Alcohol and Drugs
They, too, often turn to alcohol and drugs in their search for relief from the shame, the confusion, the pain of being violated by someone they loved and trusted. You see the effects of this abuse in the depth of their souls, etched in faces aged by stories only they can tell―ugly stories that surface during moments of solitude that should be periods of happy dreams for children.
c. Confusing Sexual Abuse for Love
Many times these children develop the mistaken belief that the abuse they experienced is really love, and they become vulnerable to sexual exploitation by other children or adults. They admit to being confused and not even sure of their own sexuality. Some try to normalize it by saying, “It’s something I was curious about and thought I would try.” They accept the blame for something a sex-predator is responsible for.
2. The Path of Suffering We Must Travel
Those of us who are care providers and part of the religious community suffer also. We see the impact of the evil forces of sexual abuse and the loss of faith in a higher being. We cry when we see precious children slipping away from their spiritual roots. Many say, “I pray, but God doesn’t hear me! He didn’t hear me before! He doesn’t hear me now!” Their faith is being tested by an adult world before they’ve had a chance to experience the innocence of childhood.
We travel the path of suffering our hurting children travel. We don’t suffer the same as they do, but we let them know that we’re available as a loving, caring provider to help them come out of the darkness and into the light. We let them know that we’re always there for them. We pray silently for the patience and God-given wisdom to lead them from the darkness of shame and guilt. We ask the Holy Spirit to protect them as they suffer under a burden they believe they alone must bear.
3. The Role of the Church Family
The religious community must and should take the lead in bridging the gap between the professional and spiritual healing processes. We must restore faith in some and plant seeds in others. They are our lost sheep and we have the responsibility of helping them understand that there is a way back and that we will walk with them to show there is nothing to fear on this path to wholeness and healing.
It is being said that the church is the last fertile ground for the healing of child sexual-abuse. This fact demands that churches prepare themselves to recognize this problem, protect their children, and develop and implement a plan for a healing process for abused victims.
Far too long churches have stood aside to allow the secular professionals to treat the sexually-abused children, with little or no input from the religious community. There is no greater power for restoring emotional well being than the restoration of one’s spiritual faith. Churches must step forward and work with these professionals in the healing process. In so doing, they demonstrate their faith in a living God through whom all things are possible.
4. When a Child in the Religious Community Is Sexually Abused
Children who come into the environment of group homes often come from the religious community. Being a member of a Christian family is no assurance that sexual abuse will not rear its ugly head. Spiritual leaders need to be aware that children who are part of their church family may be sexually abused. Look for some of the signs of sexual abuse discussed in this chapter. They are cries for help from kids who know no other way to communicate what has been done to them. Probably very few temper tantrums occur because of a sexual demon tormenting a child, but be aware that this is one sign that can be a child’s cry for help.
When a child in your church family cries for help, members of that child’s spiritual family need to be there for him or her, and help the child who has been sexually abused to find a path to healing. If an upstanding member of your church is a sexual predator of a child, you need to do all you can to remove the predator from his victim and notify legal authorities so this person can be removed as a danger to the child. Then, visit this fallen believer and help him find healing and hope for his future.
Case Study of Raymond
Raymond came to us at the age of nine. His parents were both into drugs (the mother more than the father). There had been questions of physical abuse and neglect. Efforts at placement with relatives, including the paternal grandmother, were unsuccessful. Raymond was back and forth between his mother and relatives when allegations of sexual abuse perpetrated by the father on him surfaced. After a lengthy investigation, the allegations were proven to be true and the father was tried, convicted, and sent to prison. Thus began Raymond’s nomadic childhood in the foster-care system.
One of the stipulations of the court was that the father was to have no physical contact with Raymond and only limited, monitored, written contact with him. Raymond was a ward of the courts and it was now their responsibility to protect him.
At the time of the molesting charges against his father, Raymond was willing to tell what had happened to him. But, as this older primary boy tried to process the turmoil that now surrounded him as time passed, he began to deny the charges against his father.
We were Raymond’s third placement. He was presented to us as a habitual runner. “Habitual runners” were those children who found life in a group-home so unacceptable that they would run away from the home at the first opportunity that presented itself. Raymond was a chronic runaway.
Sometimes he would be gone from one of his previous group-homes for as long as two days. Group homes are required to report to the police department any child in their care as a “missing child” after a four-hour unauthorized absence. If a child is gone for a day or two, it creates extra reporting requirements, worry, stress, and conflict in the home. Many group homes have policies that will not allow a child to run away more than twice within a specific period of time before they will request removal by his/her social worker or probation officer.
Sometimes a child will use running as a way of manipulating the system so the child is removed from a placement he/she does not like. Other times they may run back to family or familiar surroundings. Children who are abused have a great need to feel wanted and loved, and not to be abandoned. Even when a child has a favorable attitude to a placement, he may still have a need to remain connected to his family and may run away to family or friends even when home visitations are allowed.
Children who have become habitual runners usually have learned street-survival skills that will allow them to live on the streets. Many times these skills are developed because of a need to remove themselves from a traumatic environment. Whatever the reason, it presents a major problem to maintain continuity of the program within a group home. If the problem is unchecked, one runner will beget another runner, and soon the home can lose control with little chance of adjusting negative behavior of any of its children.
During the 30-day orientation period in our group-home, a child is allowed no telephone calls, no visits from family members, no home visits to family members, and no allowance, as he adjusts himself to life in our home. Once the orientation is completed, the child is allowed to select a staff member to take him to dinner at a restaurant of his choice and, most importantly to the child, to begin to receive a regular allowance. If a child runs away during this period, upon his return, the orientation period is extended one or two weeks, depending on what occurred during his AWOL period. In a serious case, a boy could be terminated during the orientation period and referred back to his social worker for another placement. We would allow up to two incidents of running away during the orientation period, and three after the orientation period, before referring him for another placement. We would also consider the seriousness of a run before making such a decision. We were heartsick when Raymond tested our runaway policy during his orientation. His runaways then were not serious ― he didn’t come directly home after school; he was found playing with friends when he should have been home.
Raymond was provided with individual weekly psychological sessions with a licensed psychologist, as well as weekly group sessions with a social worker. After a period of time in these sessions, most of the kids will begin to talk about why they are in placement. Those who are there because of sexual abuse are often the last to talk about this abuse as one of the reasons they are in placement. They appear not to want others to know about it, especially if they feel that they are unique in having a sexual-abuse experience.
Raymond was a child who had been brought up attending church in spite of his parents’ drug use. Often it was his grandmother who saw to it that he attended church. It was very obvious that Raymond had a need for spiritual nurturing in his life, and he seemed to be comfortable with a belief in God.
Raymond would always talk openly about the use of drugs by his parents, their neglect and physical abuse of him but, not wanting to have to deal with the trauma of abuse again, he would never talk about being sexually abused.
After a couple of months, his father wrote him from prison. When he realized that his contact with his father was going to be limited, one day he loudly announced, “My father is being kept from me because they think he molested me, but he didn’t.” After that, he would mention the molestation only to affirm his father’s innocence. While it was the father who sexually abused him and his mother who verbally and physically abused him, he always identified with his father and expressed dislike and, many times, hatred for his mother. He had often observed his mother taking drugs and was well aware of the illegality and the harmful effects of her actions on her health and the family unit. One can only surmise that the father had probably manipulated him into thinking the affection that often accompanies this kind of abuse meant to him that his father cared far more for him than a mother who was verbally and physically abusive.
Group homes cannot alleviate all the problems these kids have but, if they are truly concerned about the children in their care, they can establish an environment that is conducive to allow the start of the healing process. Before healing can get underway, however, the child must first feel safe, warm, comfortable, assured that he will be well fed and clothed, and aware that he, too, can make choices in his life.
Kids in group homes will always talk among themselves about the home, the staff, and the rules. If the children perceive the home is hostile and that they are just being “warehoused,” it is unlikely that the home will make any lasting impression on these children. Working with abused children can be difficult and frustrating. We must learn to take clues from the child and begin where he is the moment he walks through our door. If he is hungry, he must be fed. If he needs clothes, he must be clothed. If he is frightened, he must have confidence that he will be protected. He must have space of his own in which to grow. And, he must be allowed his childhood. Regardless of why kids are sent to a group home, they need to feel this is their home―not just an informal group home.
When Raymond arrived at our group home, we knew that in addition to the psychological and group sessions, he would need to learn patience. His pain and distrust was obvious and, by his comments, he was anticipating a short stay with us. Knowing his penchant for running away, we wanted to give him such a positive experience in our home that he would not want to escape to the streets.
We have found that one of the best ways to get these children to relax is to make sure they are well fed with attractive well-balanced meals that include foods they enjoy eating. Somehow the kids seem to equate how well they are fed with how well they will be treated and how much they will trust you. Once they trust you, this trust must never be violated.
If a child’s record indicated a particular religion, he was always told he could attend the church of his choice. In our group home we have never tried to hide our belief in God. We openly display Christian books for children, Bibles, and other Christian literature and videos. At meals, we ask if anyone would like to give thanks for the meal. Usually these kids do not want to say grace themselves but will suggest that “you say it.” Raymond never volunteered to say grace but would respectfully wait to eat until others said it.
As Raymond grew more comfortable in our home, he talked more openly about his past life―especially the drug use by his mother. He participated in group discussions. He even selected food items for the weekly menu. We really felt we were progressing when (1) he chose to skip a home visit with his grandmother so he could participate in a group home activity, and (2) he wanted to discuss the non-Christian behavior of a particular staff member who professed to being a Christian. The simple act of allowing him to express his own belief in what constituted Christian behavior presented a small window to peer beyond the fragile frame and glimpse the depth of a troubled soul. He would not identify any specific behavior, but insisted that the staff person in question did not act like a Christian, and he refused to attend if that staff person was taking the kids anywhere. Later we discovered from Raymond that his problem with the staff member was that the fellow used profanity and yelled at him. Other kids confirmed Raymond’s report. We don’t tolerate the use of profanity by any of the staff or the kids. The staff member denied that he had a problem with anger or cursing. We referred him to a psychologist for anger-modification.
Just as social agencies have done, churches must develop programs that focus on the whole child, even if this means delaying spiritual help until after the child’s basic human needs are met. We encourage church attendance by the children in our group-home, and nurture and support them. When Raymond attended church, he would often sit with a faraway expression on his face. We knew there was still a lot of work to be done to preserve his spiritual foundation.
We really felt that Raymond liked our home. He developed a special bond with my sister (co-owner of our group home). Whenever she drove into the driveway, he would rush out to meet her. He would grin when the other kids teased him about acting like my sister was his mother. This went on for a year and a half, then runaway Raymond started some serious runs. Once he was gone for several days. We hated to see him leave us, because we felt we had really made a difference in his life. His grandmother also hated to see that he had to be placed elsewhere. He had been with us for the longest of his placements since having to leave his own home.
Raymond was still in denial about being abused by his father when he left us. Since his departure, I have found out that his average stay at a new group-home is about four months. He is slowly making his way south via group homes to central California.
The church family needs to care for all the parties to sexual abuse when they are in the spiritual family: the victim, the perpetrator, and other family members. Churches must institute programs that provide protection, feeding, housing, and clothing for little lambs in the family of God who are hurting because of abuse. Rather than simply being a soul-saving station, churches need to be body-saving stations, too, providing for the physical needs of family members going through trauma.
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