Helping an Abused Family in Distress


I’m the homeschooling mom of eleven children, the five youngest still at home. My husband was arrested for felony child abuse in September 2015, and I’ve learned from the extreme needs we’ve experienced and from the help we’ve been given. I originally wrote this article as a gift, to help another very large homeschooling family in distress, but I hope that the principles apply no matter the size of the family or how they educate. Any time a parent is an abuser, the needs are extreme, and a loving community can go far in comforting the distressed family of a criminal abuser.

Money

Of all the burdens that need to be carried in the wake of abuse disclosures, this one is easiest to vanquish. If many people give a little over time, that’s relief for a suffering family over time. In many abuse cases, poverty, unpaid debt, inadequate housing, and inadequate transportation are long-term issues with long-term consequences, when child support tends to be minimal, uncertain, or absent.

When an abuser is removed from the home, the family’s needs don’t start from normalcy and don’t evaporate early. Due to long-term damage of various kinds, the need for therapy and recovery is extreme and will continue to be extreme for a long time. The children of abuse also depend on their safe parent (who may also be disabled by the effects of long-term abuse), and they will continue to need the attention of their safe parent going forward. It may be years before getting a full-time job or working full-time in a business will be a good choice, unless the children’s needs are sacrificed.

Gift cards to better fast food restaurants

Both the initial investigation and the ongoing therapy appointments are overwhelming and take up substantial time, especially for a large family with multiple victims. A gift card to a fast food restaurant frees a mother from making the decision to spend cash (which the family needs to conserve as much as possible) when children are hungry, time is short, and the family is on the run between appointments. Nutrition is critical for healing, so it’s beneficial to choose from the more nutritious options. (In my area, Culvers, Jimmy Johns, Subway, and Papa Murphy’s are better, but this will obviously vary from place to place. Ask the family if you’re not sure.)

Appointment Help

With a large number of children, it can be a full-time job just getting the right people to the right places while giving all the care and emotional support that children need during the process. In abuse cases, there are typically many appointments necessary, both for immediate investigation and for long-term therapy. Some of these appointments will be very long, the process will be trying for children, and it will be very difficult as mom’s attention must be divided among several little people who are anxious and probably bored in a waiting room.

If the family lives in a rural area, gas cards can be a huge help with the cost of driving to appointments. In urban areas, a highway pass or train tokens may be equally helpful.

Offers to care for children during appointments can also be precious. Even if a mom has left younger children with older ones in the past, this may not be an option due to the children’s anxiety with each other and their fear that the abuser might come back to hurt them. A friend said, "Any time you need to drop off kids, just call me. I’m almost always home, and I don't need more than a few minutes’ warning.” Her kind offer meant that this issue was settled in my mind.

Extreme stress is very hard on the memory and forgotten appointments are common. For a family struggling with this issue, Google Calendar is great for tracking appointments and can be synced to a cell phone.

Meals

Meals are very helpful, especially in the early months. Shock and grief are exhausting, and the appointments for investigation and therapy take much time from regular household chores. Ask about special diets, find out what the family likes, and bring meals in containers that do not need to be returned. (Abuse and extreme stress can have severe effects on memory, so it may be quite difficult for the family to recall which dish was yours.)

If you don't cook, or even if you do, call when you are out shopping and say, "I was thinking of dropping off some ice cream for your children, but is there something you would like better or need more?" Ask her if she's in need of soap, shampoo, laundry detergent, or trash bags. (Big families go through these things fast. It’s so beneficial when just one needed thing is delivered on the day it’s needed, especially when kids are stressed and there is so much to be done.)

Security

Doors, locks, phones, a cell phone, video surveillance, etc. Working on these things can be a huge comfort, especially if it's a case where the offender is released until trial or is being supervised in the community. (I bought a new phone system with enough handsets to put a phone in every bedroom; my children slept better.)

Paper plates and plastic tableware

These were invented for a reason. When we received 500 of each on day one, it was one of the sweetest gifts we got. We were relieved but numb and emotionally exhausted. Emotional exhaustion means physical exhaustion and the appointments (CPS, CARE House, therapy) were very time-consuming and tiring.

Boxing and storing the offender’s belongings

The offender may be incarcerated or homeless, but in any case he cannot just drop by and gather his things. He may also have no place to put them. For some families, packing the offender’s things is a therapeutic aspect of grieving, but others would appreciate not having to touch anything and would welcome having someone else do it.

When a parent’s belongings have come out of all the drawers and closets and have been put in boxes, they take up far more space than expected, especially in a small home with several children. Offering to store the offender’s belongings in a garage or working with the offender to put his things in a storage unit could be very helpful for his family who otherwise would have to keep his things.

Changing the living space

For some victims, the offender’s arrest is like receiving the news that they are no longer imprisoned--but their surroundings will still look like the same old prison. Reminders of terrible suffering will be everywhere. Some families will need to move. Others may need to paint or rearrange their living space. Some furniture may be a visual reminder of cruelty and may need to be replaced. New sheets, blankets, or beds may needed, both for the child victims and for the injured spouse. Children may also need new underwear and nightwear.

For help with discarding things, an offer to drive to the thrift store may be helpful. A donation of heavy duty trash bags might be welcome. In some cases, a dumpster rental might be necessary and very much appreciated.

In abuse cases, there may be inadequate housing or long-term neglect of the property. Insulation, plumbing, windows, roofing, or siding may need care. And if the house is to be sold, it may need repairs to help it sell.

Yard work might be extremely helpful also.

Pets

Abused children often need to keep their pets, which have often been their comforters in suffering and are not a luxury. Help with pet food, pet supplies, vet care, and temporary boarding may sometimes be needed.

Vehicles

Or home maintenance, lawn mowing, snow shoveling, and tax preparation

In the division of labor in most homes, there are things that the offender has done but which are now all on the shoulders of the safe parent. Find out what these things are, and if you have skill in that area, offer services. If she's used to calling her husband if the car makes a funny noise, just say, "If you ever have trouble with your car (er, giant van), just call me. I’d be happy to help."

Spiritual and Emotional Care

The victims are not a community news item. They are suffering people. But every case is different with different dynamics and a different timeline, and every victim is a unique and precious person, so there is not one right way for this to look. Individuals and families will express their grief, sadness, and fear differently. While the hours of abuse create deep, horrible, and unexpected wounds, disclosure may lead either to greater sadness or to relief and comfort. Either response is acceptable. Although the latter response may be disconcerting to a stunned and grieving community, it’s okay for victims to feel what they feel and for their feelings to evolve over time, either for better or for worse.

Openly disclosing abuse tends to be a miserable and humiliating experience, especially for children, so false disclosures are rare. A friend’s job is to be a friend, not an investigator, so it’s important to listen and listen again without offering judgment or pressing for details or proof. “Innocent until proven guilty’ is a standard for punishing offenders, not a standard for showing love and mercy to the suffering. (Most offenders are never arrested, because abuse is so hard to prove and because district attorneys know that testifying is extremely traumatic for children. For those few abusers who are arrested, there is typically an enormous gap between the stated criminal charges and the whole truth, for the very same reasons.)

Be available to listen without pushing for answers or details, without judging what was or wasn’t done in the past, and without pressuring victims to do what you think they should do, when you think they should do it.

Please don't say--

"I would never have married somebody like that.” (Or, “I would never have stayed married to somebody like that.")

"My husband would never dare to do that because I'm very protective of my kids."

"My kids would have told me sooner. We're so close."

My kids would not have stood for it. I’ve taught them to be strong.”

What did they do to tempt him? People don’t do stuff like that for no reason.”

Are you sure this is true? He always seemed like a great guy to me.”

I’m glad everyone finally got the courage to stop this. We never would have let it happen.”

Abusers are far better at dividing, deceiving, and disempowering than you can possible imagine and, just like any other criminals, they tend to intimidate their victims and cover their tracks. The safe parent of abused children does protect them, is close to them, and hasn’t caused the offender’s crimes.

If, in the past, you’ve believed that children can typically tell easily and early, please know that the conflicts in the heart of an abused child are very complex. Sometimes the suffering of daily life shouts far more loudly than any quiet verbal instruction about bad touches.

One of the things that’s haunted me is that I have 11 children and homeschooled them all, because I wanted to protect them and didn't want any bad people doing bad things to any of them! So, whenever someone suggests that this was happening because I wasn’t trying hard enough in some way, it’s deeply and intensely painful for me.

Think rightly about the Gospel

Now, at least, the family knows that their husband and father is a criminal, and that he has thought and acted as a criminal, possibly for many years. While this may be confusing and stressful for friends and possibly for members of the extended family to hear about, it’s better not to bring that confusion and stress to the victims, seeking clarity or comfort from them. They need to be comforted, not burdened.

Please don’t make statements like these--

"Well, this could be any of us, and I'm sure the perpetrator is very sorry by now, so let's just pray everyone can forgive and move on."

The Gospel means that there is no difference between our daily repentance and ongoing fight against sin and a child abuser’s long-term efforts to harm children under a cover of deception.”

Until now, you’ve only known the offender based on what he’s said about himself and what he’s said and done in public, but the Bible teaches that a person’s secret behavior reveals his heart far more accurately than either what he says about himself or how he seems in public. Willful abuse is nothing like the normal fight against sin, so please don’t make this comparison.

Luke 6:43-45

“For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.”

When my husband was arrested, a friend came and read Psalm 3 with me, which did more good than dozens of verses taken out of context to convince me, somehow, that abuse is just like normal sin, that it isn’t that serious, and that my first duty is to be “humble enough” to overlook crime.

Talk to your own kids

Children whose father has hurt them are still kids and still need their friends. Help your children know what to say. "I'm sorry about your dad" works. "I'm sad (or mad) about what happened to you" works too. Encourage them to be the same friends they ever were. Teach them to be available and to express sadness without pressing for details.

Offer respite

The family has hard things to work through, each one in his or her own heart, and all of them together in their relationships with each other, but they can’t do that work 24/7. Respite is very important. Modest entertainment may be a welcome distraction, giving the whole family times of peace, opportunities to build new memories together, and times to build cohesion. Depending on the family, options could include a gift certificate to a theater, bowling, mini-golf, a picnic at the park, or pizza and a movie at home. A weekend away from the scenes of past trauma may also be an enormous comfort.

Expect Ongoing Distress

Please remember that these are not happy families being broken up by a single tragic event. These are not typical adjustments to single parenthood.

Every member of an abused family has been injured and some family members may have been injured severely, or even disabled by the abuse. Expect divisions in relationships, PTSD and triggering, anxiety and panic disorders, clinical depression, and possibly the development of personality disorders in children.

While the removal of the abuser is always good and positive thing, it’s a sudden crisis similar to removing the lid from a pressure cooker, when the beans hit the ceiling with violent force. Family members who are finally free to express themselves will have a lot of stress and anxiety to express, both from a lifetime of abuse and from the increased stresses and pressures of living independently, going through divorce, enduring a criminal trial, fearing that the abuser will come to wreak havoc, and frequently enduring extreme financial difficulty with little or no child support and little or no ability to get and keep work.

Because both mother and children have suffered severe trauma, abuse tends to divide the mother from her children and the children from one another. Among the children, especially there may be a lot of fighting, bickering, complaining, and resistance that weren't there before. The mix of pain and recovery often won’t look pretty and put-together.

Unfortunately, sometimes people will see the effects of long-term abuse as causes: “Look how many problems his wife and children have! No wonder he was stressed.” Mistaking the effects of abuse for causes is a harmful response to innocent, grave suffering.

Be informed and be available long-term

Know that trauma is not simply a collection of regrettable bad memories; trauma is measurable, physical harm to brain structures, with an uncertain recovery. Nothing in the next year or in the next five years will magically turn this into a good thing. God is a mighty deliverer and healer, and God remembers what happened, but what happened is always going to be bad, sad, and terrible and the mental and emotional injuries are likely to be serious, likely won’t heal quickly, and may not be fully healed in a lifetime. There will always be moments to remember and tell the truth, psychological care and treatment may need to be ongoing for years, and economic productivity may be a long time away because of it. One person’s healing is not predictive for anyone else, and one good year is not predictive of many more.

Offer what you have

You have unique gifts and abilities. Many small kindnesses from multiple friends may add up to great comfort. Since abuse causes confusion and sometimes affects the ability to think and decide, many people won't respond very well to "Call me if you ever need anything”; it may be far better to look at what's in your hand, ask yourself how it could be used to help, and offer what you have.


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