Wednesday, January 30, 2013

sexual abuse, culture, hidden things

For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, 
and whatever is concealed is meant to 
be brought out into the open. 
Mark 4:22

We receive a lot of emails from- 
1. People moving to Haiti to work/serve and 2. People adopting kids from Haiti.
We have found that whenever we give the "Do not underestimate the cultural differences and the vastly different norms" advice in relation to sexual abuse, people stop responding. I would estimate that 75% of the people I write that to never say a word back.  I don't know if that is because they have decided I am a cynic (I am!) or a liar or if they just don't have it in them to face the difficult truth of the warning they have just been offered. Denial is powerful. I cannot take the time to answer those emails in any detailed way anymore so I am posting this and using it for a quick reference link to respond to future emails. 

From -

What Missionaries Ought to Know about Sexual Abuse
We all wish it did not occur, and we avoid talking about it as if it never happens. However the fact is that, like other children, missionary kids (MKs) are sometimes sexually abused. In some cases MKs may be in even more danger of sexual abuse (such as being touched or touching inappropriately, being shown pornography, having intercourse, etc.). If parents are frequently absent, leaving their children with other missionaries, and telling their children to respect and obey the other adults as they would their own parents, those children are put under the authority of a greater spectrum of adults, increasing their opportunity to run into an abuser. If the parents have not had an open attitude about the discussion of sexuality, their MKs may believe a perpetrator whom they know well when that abuser tells them some activity is all right. Let's consider where sexual abuse can occur, what are some signs of sexual abuse, and what we can do to prevent it. (Note that we are talking about sexual abuse involving an older person, not curiosity about sexual differences between children of about the same age.)
Can it happen at home (incest)?
Of course, it can. It most often happens in families that appear to be very close. However, they are too "close"; the family members are too enmeshed. When the incest is discovered, family members typically go through denial, shock, horror, anger, grief, and finally go on to some action (or decide not to act). The following are characteristic of incestuous relationships.
  • Power Differences. Children are in a position of less power than perpetrators (parent or older sibling). Holding lower positions and respecting older persons, children find it very difficult to resist sexual advances.
  • Betrayal of Trust. Families are expected to be places of safety and security, places where children are nurtured and develop the potential God has provided. Sexual abuse within the family violates this basic function of the family.
  • Blame. Although unfair, other family members may blame the abused children, accusing them of dressing or behaving provocatively. Children may blame themselves for letting the sexual activity occur, for participating in the affection and attention, or for actually enjoying the physical sensations and closeness (if they did).
  • Secrecy. Children may remain silent because of shame, fear, ignorance or because they do not know how to explain what is happening.
Can it happen with other missionaries?
Of course, it can. When it does, it often has many of the same characteristics as incest (sexual abuse within a family). In fact, many mission agencies refer to themselves as "missionary families" in which each child has many "aunts" and "uncles" who are not blood relatives, but to whom the children feel close. Like biological families, such missionary families living together in another culture may become too enmeshed so that they become dysfunctional, and sexual abuse may happen to children as well as single female missionaries. These relationships have the same characteristics as incest.
  • Power Differences. Children on a given field are encouraged to respect and obey other missionaries as they do their parents. Single women may also be under the authority of the perpetrator and be somewhat flattered to receive attention. This is especially true of the perpetrator is the spiritual and moral leader of the group who is in the spotlight of many worship services.
  • Betrayal of Trust. Children and single women expect the missionary community (family) to give them protection and care in the host culture. Sexual abuse within that community betrays such trust.
  • Blame. The missionary community (family) may blame the child or the single woman for seducing their colleague or leader. Likewise, the victims may also begin to blame themselves.
  • Secrecy. Sexual abuse in the missionary family may be even more secret because if it becomes known, it will bring shame on the missionary enterprise, God's work.
Can it happen at boarding school?
Of course, it can. Cases of such abuse have received wide publicity during the '90s with schools and churches apologizing to those abused. Again the family model is used with the students living in houses with others who are like brothers or sisters their age, and the people in charge are their dorm "parents."
  • Power Differences. Students are to respect and obey their surrogate parents and love their surrogate siblings.
  • Betrayal of Trust. The school family is to be a place of protection and care.
  • Blame. Again victims may blame themselves or be blamed by others.
  • Secrecy. Revealing the abuse will bring disgrace on the school. If it is a Christian school, revealing the abuse will also bring disgrace on the cause of Christ.
Can it happen in the host culture?
Again the answer is a resounding "Yes!" In this case it is abuse coming from outside the family, so it is not a betrayal of trust and seldom is the victim blamed, but the secrecy is still there in the sense that it is often not talked about.
One adult MK described walking through a bustling marketplace at the age of 16 with a friend. Suddenly a man on a bicycle veered toward them so that the man could reach out and grab the friend's breast. The two of them walked on without breaking stride. Their conversation continued uninterrupted. Although it is painfully seared on her memory, never in 25 years did the two of them ever mention it.
Some cultures view women as intrinsically inferior to men in nearly every way rather than as image-bearers of God who are to be respected. Sometimes female MKs are told to ignore the stares, rude gestures, touches, and pinches. They may come to believe that their feelings of fear, indignation, and humiliation are wrong rather than seeing the abuse as what is wrong. They are expected to treat such things as insignificant, something to get used to, a part of adapting to the culture.
Boys as well as girls may be sexually molested. In fact, some cultures routinely masturbate boys to calm them, and sodomy can occur in any culture.
What are some signs of sexual abuse?
Some children who are being sexually abused function quite normally and do not have any obvious symptoms. Others have only general symptoms that could indicate a variety of other problems related to growing up. The most certain way to know about abuse is when individuals report it.
Some physical conditions may indicate sexual abuse. If a child has bruises or bleeding in the genital or anal areas, foreign bodies in the vagina or rectum, pain or itching in the genital area, stained or bloody underclothing, painful discharge of urine, or difficulty walking or sitting, they should be examined by a physician. It is important not to make accusations of sexual abuse because any or all of these conditions may have other causes, and a missionary's reputation and effectiveness can be destroyed by a false accusation.
Some behaviors may indicate sexual abuse. Children who force sexual acts on others, talk a lot about sexual activity, engage in sexual games unusual for children their age, have an unusual knowledge of sexual things, engage in sexually aggressive behaviors, have an unusual interest in sexual things, or have an unusual fear of men may have been sexually abused. Again, any of these may have other causes, and accusations must not be made on the basis of them alone.
What can we do?
Although sexual predators will always be with us, there are several things we can do to minimize the damage they do.
  • Talk about it (early, regularly, age-appropriately). Teach children the difference between good touch, bad touch, and confusing touch as well as the difference between good secrets and bad secrets. Tell children where they can go if trouble occurs and make it clear that no matter what happens, no sexual activity with an older person should be kept secret. Let them know that sometimes people, even people they trust, may try to touch them inappropriately or get them to do something that seems to be wrong as part of a game or secret. If this occurs they should say no and not do the wrong thing.
  • Believe them. If a child reports abuse, tell them that you believe them (even though "Uncle John" seems to be the most child-loving, spiritual missionary you know). Do not jump to conclusions but stay calm and listen. Do not ask leading questions (Did he touch you there?), but write down word-for-word exactly what the child said describing the abuse as soon as possible after talking with the child. Affirm the child's feelings (It's OK to be angry, frightened, etc.) and reassure him or her that you will continue to be there whenever needed.
  • Report it. Even though the alleged perpetrator may be an important spiritual leader in your agency, take some action. If your agency has procedures for taking action against people who do wrong, follow those procedures. If not, take whatever action you can in your situation. This is as much to prevent abuse of others as it is to stop abuse of the child involved. Abusers often repeat the offense and must be stopped.
Ronald Koteskey
Member Care Consultant
GO International

All parents planning on moving their children to a new culture need to recognize that it will take years before they begin to understand language and culture well. Plenty of things about culture remain hidden and secret even years (or forever) into living in it. In some cultures children are exposed to sex at very young ages and will act out what they have seen or experienced themselves. The rules of what is allowable or appropriate with children varies culture to culture. Don't be trusting of anyone - expat, host culture, "pastor", or otherwise. 

I hate saying this because it sounds cynical (I am) - but dysfunctional and hurt people hide out on the "mission field" and they even gain status doing so. Missonary is an old school word and it doesn't mean what people think or want it to mean. Titles should not be trusted. It is not rude to your host culture to be protective of your children. The host culture should not implicityly trust the expats/visitors either.

Kids that have suffered sexual abuse hide it. They carry shame and confusion. Hiding it causes them isolation and suffering. A study** done recently suggests that the secrecy surrounding sexual abuse is as damaging as the abuse itself. Talk about this stuff frequently with your kids. Be on your guard and let people call you overprotective. That's a label we can be happy to wear. 

All adoptive parents should prepare for the liklihood that their children will have suffered some sexual abuse at some point in their lives - especially because Haiti adoptions are slowing way down and there is very little no chance of adopting a baby anymore. "Christian orphanage" "small program" "great nannies" - all of that is nice - it doesn't matter prepare anywayHundreds of adoptive parents' experiences don't lie. 

**Source: Brene Brown, Daring Greatly, Page 82:
"Shame thrives on secret keeping, and when it comes to secrets, there's some serious science behind the twelve-step program saying, "You're only as sick as your secrets." In a pioneering study, psychologist and University of Texas professor James Pennebaker and his colleagues studied what happened when trauma survivors -- specifically rape and incest survivors --kept their secret. The research team found that the act of not discussing a traumatic event or confiding it to another person could be more damaging than the actual event." 


Krystal said...

This is very heartbreaking but also something that people need to know. I remember getting one of those warning emails from you - and I really appreciated your honesty. I still do. Thank you.

Kim said...

Thanks for posting Tara. Something we've talked quite a bit about...and yet we still know we probably would be in a complete state of shock initially if we find signs, etc. Thankful for your post and people willing to talk openly about it!!

yellowgirl said...

this is all true. we've been in missions for almost 30 years and we've seen, and experienced, many of these thing within our family. this also applies to church families. and you're right...the worst of it is the secrecy. our children deserve our protection even if it's at the risk of offending the host culture!

Anonymous said...

I am that MK. Thank you for speaking out about the truth. My loving, wonderful parents were not prepared for what happened to me.

Araratacres said...

I am a frequent reader, but I don't think I've ever commented. I would hate for your comments to go unheeded on a whole other sector of people.....sexual abuse of a child is not just a cultural is everywhere....even in the good old U S of A. I once sat in a women's Bible study that became very personal and many women opened up about this very thing. We are all adults now, but would you believe that once we started sharing, almost half of the women in our group were either sexually abused or molested when we were children. No, it isn't a Hatian thing, it isn't even a cultural is the sinful nature of a terribly fallen world. It is everywhere.

Anonymous said...

If your adopted kids are lucky enough to be spared sexual abuse, they probably have other psychological problems, like attachment disorder, PTSD etc... Do not go in blindly, do your homework.

T & T Livesay said...

I didn't say it was a Haitian thing, I didn't say it does not happen all over the world. The big difference is: In the USA you can take a 26year old man that has sex with a 13 year old and press charges. In Haiti you really cannot easily do that. Actually, much of the time that wouldn't be seen as a problem. I was pointing out that rules differ and children see sex on the whole much much sooner. I was writing TO people moving to Haiti and adopting from Haiti but I was by no means saying it is only here.

Listen To Your Mother Spokane said...

Beautifully said,and I think, good advice and a fair warning for ANYONE whether you are moving abroad or not. People in positions of trust are the ones most likely to have private access to your children. That doesn't mean we have to live our lives in perpetual suspicion, but healthy acknowledgment is a good thing.

T & T Livesay said...

I just re-read my response - I was preoccupied and didn't take time to make it sound good -- please don't read it as curt as it came across. Besides the cultural acceptance of things that a Western culture would consider troublesome there are a lot of people that go into their new culture wanting to fully embrace it and trust and be friendly -- but that's dumb -(and when I say that I am talking about 2006 Tara too) rather than be extra trusting and extra friendly in a new place that you don't understand, we need to be on high alert.

Tifanni said...

Thanks for taking the time to share this valuable insight.

Benjamin said...

Great post! I have spent about 8 years on the mission field and agree wholeheartedly.

It took about 2 years of language acquisition and acculturation before I became aware of the child abuse that had been going on around me.

I was told that it was a "family issue" (family = missionary community) and needed to be resolved inside the family...

The ease at which abuse can be hidden from supporters (language barrier), the need for good PR (to not lose support), and the "family" mentality all make for a dangerous situation where abuse can thrive.

Its sad and tragic.

T & T Livesay said...

Thanks Benjamin. Sad and tragic, yes.

I grew up in a church where the pastor was later proven to have abused hundres of boys. People with power and titles can easily hide their issues. This stuff is everywhere.

I think that the fact that people coming to "serve" want so badly to love and embrace the people they are serving is part of what makes this even MORE common.

Anonymous said...

reading ephesians 6 this morning and i view this post as a form of spiritual warfare. may we all read it and fasten on our belts of "truth", may we not hide our eyes away from the evil but confront it square in the face.

which is the opposite, btw, of calling it a "family issue". that is just abuser talk, right there.

T & T Livesay said...

It is such a shame-filled experience and shame is so very damaging that it controls people and keeps us all from talking about it. Troy and I talk about sexual abuse with our kids at least once a month. We don't just give a quick broad "be careful" - we talk about the way people build trust and that trusted people are not incapable of doing things that are wrong and manipulating situations.

Someone emailed to ask for the study that says the secrets are as damaging as the abuse itself. I will look it up tonight, I read it in Brene Brown's most recent book and she cited her source so I will list it on the bottom of the post later tonight,

T & T Livesay said...

Source: Brene Brown, Daring Greatly, Page 82:
"Shame thrives on secret keeping, and when it comes to secrets, there's some serious science behind teh twelve-step program saying, "You're only as sick as your secrets." In a pioneering study, psychologist and University of Texas professor James Pennebaker and his colleagues studied what happened when trauma survivors -- specifically rape and incest survivors --kept their secret. The research team found that the act of not discussing a traumatic event or confiding it to another person could be more damaging thatn the actual event."

Anonymous said...

I grew up in the Caribbean. No way on earth do you hear of men or women being punished by the law for sexual abuse.
On an island where the cops were called to beat the children, where teachers were allowed to do corporeal punishment on the children. Trust me I have scared knees to show for them.
Its just a given you just knew abuse was apart of your life, it was not taboo but it was very taboo. I get this happens in the US also it does. I remember addressing a teacher, after watching an afternoon special on TV, you know what the teacher said to me "Oh baby that's what families do, its okay, its nothing, its just what we do!''
Um, tell a teacher here in the states watch what happens. Its just different but I do know it happens tons and tons and tons here as well. (USA)
Thanks for posting,

Jamie Ivey said...

Thank you for writing this. It's so hard sometimes to say these words, but they need to be said.
Love you guys.

Brooke said...

Thanks, Tara, for sharing such a difficult and sad reality.

Chris said...

"I grew up in the Caribbean. No way on earth do you hear of men or women being punished by the law for sexual abuse."

Certain cultures allow this and hide it and look the other way more than others. Warning those entering into unknown cultures is smart. Thank-you.

Benjamin said...

One more point -

While missionaries are known as "go-ers" it is also important to remember that they are "leavers" as well.

For some, missions can be a way to leave unresolved issues and go to a faraway place.

Missionary communities usually are very welcoming places where everyone feels excepted. For those that are leavers, the missionary community may be the only place where they feel excepted, having burnt all of their other bridges.

All of this to say that the mission field is not only attractive to those who want to preach the Gospel, but also to those who have problematic pasts. Problematic pasts that may include being a sexual abuser.

Missionaries need to be careful about who they trust!

Sharon said...

So well said. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I pray adoptive families not only read but absorb this truth - assume your child has ready been hurt and make plans - including financial to help walk them through this. 1 very sad truth not spoken is children who have been abused abuse other children. This is fact. Supervise - do not adopt and have children share rooms - unless you have cameras hidden and are prepared to view hours of video. Children are as adept as the monsters that hurt them - they have been taught how to conceal this behavior. It is not their fault and if parents don't protect them from abusing other children - the parents are harming them and the other children. I speak from a horrible place of loss and devastation - my children - I did not see - the signs and symptoms we are taught were not present. The only way I could have protected is if I had used some sort of hidden video monitor. I read all the books ahead of time - and pridefully believed that wih he love, stability, and resources we had - we would never live those horror stories. THey are real - they are common - and due to the desire to protect child victims - this Information is not shared. This is the NORM not the exception. It is hard to understand - and devastating to watch my children work through the healing process - please - please protect yours.

T & T Livesay said...

Most organizations, orphanages, etc. will be part of hiding this problem if they are even aware of it.

It seems that people care a lot more about protecting their name, their reputation, their organization than they care about protecting children.

If everybody spent the cover-up energy on facing the truth head on and talking about it ... things would look a lot different.

T & T Livesay said...

In matters of truth the fact that you don't want to publish something is, nine times out of ten, a proof that you ought to publish it.
gilbert k. chesterton

Elicia said...

I can not say Amen loud enough for this post. Hugs Tara.

Anonymous said...

Sexual abuse is like an infestation of scabies, or lice, in an orphanage. Even when the person who brought it into the group leaves, they've likely infected others in the group so that it spreads until everyone is infected in some way (some more than others). Only unlike scabies or lice the infestation isn't always so apparent. It's also difficult because in an orphanage the perpetrators are usually other children (even if it didn't start out that way).

We're in a position of seeing some startling behaviors, but not knowing what exactly happened, and trying to decide what to do. Our kids were very young and over time have lost many memories....should go mining into their psyche trying to find the answers, or try to heal and move forward?

You're absolutely right, it happens even in the "best" orphanages.

Anonymous said...

Speaking from experience - we did not go digging up painful "forgotten" events from our sons past - just as we've all read that when puberty hits - this comes out - well - that was true for us. Also in our case what was not-so-hidden in the past was a million tea worse than we could have imagined. We regret not pursuing this when we adopted our son at age 7 or even a year or so later when he had the language - he is now 14 and our sweet, funny, athletic, caring boy is in a home where he is monitored 24/7 - he is homicidal and a sexual predator - and he is still at times sweet, funny, athletic - the caring part is hard to really know... Please get a QUALIFIED child specialist - if we had - before the shocking warning signs - maybe our son would still be at home with us? We'll never know.

Benjamin said...

Inspired in part by your post I wrote an article about Juvenile Sexual Abuse in Christian orphanages. As it was mentioned in one of the comments, it happens and when it does, it spreads like wildfire. You can read my post here: Three Ways Dysfunctional Orphanages Ministries Mishandle or Misunderstand Juvenile Sexual Abuse

Hank Summers said...

It does not matter where you are in the world, sexual abuse is not acceptable. We as people are educated enough to know that.

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