Helping an Abused Family in Distress

I’m the homeschooling mom of eleven children, the six youngest still at home. I learned these things after my husband was arrested for felony child abuse in September 2015 and wrote this to help another very large homeschooling family in distress. These 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 grieving, distressed family.

In all the burdens that need to be carried in the wake of abuse disclosures, this one is easy to vanquish. If many people give a little, the result can be a huge, instant relief for a suffering family. Also, in some abuse cases, poverty and unpaid debt will be a huge issue with long-term consequences. Often, this is not a need that starts at normalcy and evaporates early. Especially for a family of several homeschooled children, who have always been with their mother, and who are suddenly very anxious and grieving, it will be some time before getting a job or working in a business will be good options for their mother.

Gift cards to better fast food restaurants
These free a mother entirely from making the decision to spend cash (which the family needs as long as possible) on a fast meal when time is very short and the family is on the run between appointments. Nutrition is even more important in grief and distress, so it’s beneficial to choose one of the more nutritious options. (In my area, Culvers, Jmmy Johns, Subway, and pizza are better, but ask the family if you’re not sure.)

There are typically a large number of appointments that are immediately necessary for investigation and therapy. 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 when they are being asked to talk about things they don’t even want to think about. Some of these appointments will be very long, the process is very trying for children, and it’s very difficult if mom’s attention must be divided among several little people who are anxious and probably bored in a waiting room.

Offers to care for children during appointments can be precious. Even if a mom sometimes leaves younger ones with older ones, this may not be an option during these stressful months. The children’s anxiety may be extreme, which affects their ability to be alone without adult supervision, and if their father gets out on bond, they may be afraid to be home alone. A friend told me, "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 one more area was settled in my mind.

Google Calendar was a big help for me with tracking all the times and places.

Gas cards
Especially if the family lives in a rural area, gas cards can be a huge help with the many appointments and the extra driving they entail. In other areas, a highway pass or train tokens may be equally helpful.

Meals are very helpful, especially in the early months. Shock and grief are exhausting, and the appointments for investigation and therapy take a lot of time from regular household chores. Ask about special diets, find out what the family likes, and bring it if possible in containers that do not need to be returned.

If you don't cook, or even if you do, call when you are out shopping and say, "I was thinking of dropping off a few gallons of 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 cheap but so beneficial when just one needed thing is delivered on the day it’s needed, especially when kids are stressed and there is much to be done.)

Doors, locks, phones, a cell phone, etc. If anything feels insecure, working on these things can be a huge comfort, especially if it's a case where the offender is released until trial. (I bought a new phone system that had enough handsets to put a phone in every bedroom and 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 and 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 having someone else do it. When a parent’s belongings have come out of 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 paying for a small 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 then when they look around it feels like the same prison because reminders of terrible things are everywhere. Some families will need to move. Others may need to paint or rearrange their living space. Some furniture may need to be replaced because it is a visual reminder of cruelty. New sheets, blankets, or beds may needed, both for child victims and for a wife who finds it hard to sleep in the same bed. Children may need new underwear and nightwear. If you have a large vehicle, just offering to pick up a load of things that needs to go to a thrift store might be valuable to help restore sanity from chaos.

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 probably cared for in the past that are now on the shoulders of the safe parent. Find out what these are, and if you have skill in that area, or know someone who does, see if one of you can 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 know a lot about cars and would 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 and the moments of disclosure are deep, horrible, and unexpected wounds, disclosure may lead to immediate relief and safety. If so, victims may feel more comfortable and happier. This is okay too, as disconcerting as it might be to a stunned community.

Openly disclosing abuse is miserable and humiliating, so false disclosures are very rare. Your job is to be a friend, not an investigator, so just listen and listen again. You don’t need details or proof, and your calling is not to withhold mercy until you have them. “Innocent until proven guilty’ is a standard for punishing offenders, not a standard for showing love. (Most offenders are never arrested because it’s so hard to prove abuse and no one wants children to testify. For those few who are arrested there may be an enormous gap between the stated criminal charges and the whole truth, and this will be for the 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, when you think they should. SERVE.

We tend to protect ourselves emotionally when we reach out to help. We may unconsciously create a comforting cocoon that keeps us from hurting too much and assures us that what happened to them won't happen to us. This is a very normal human response, but it can come out in hurtful ways, so 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 better at dividing, deceiving, and disempowering than you can possible imagine. The mothers of abused children protect them, are close to them, and have done nothing to cause this. If you believe that closeness means that children can tell easily and early, the conflicts in the heart of an abused child are very much more complex than that. (For one thing, disclosure sometimes waits for children to become mature enough to understand that what they’ve known as long as they can remember isn’t normal and is against the law. When the suffering of daily life shouts so loudly, verbal instruction about ‘bad touches’ may not prevail.)

One of the things that haunted me is that I had 11 children and homeschooled them because I love each one so much and because I didn't want bad people doing bad things to 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
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 fight against sin and a child abuser’s long-term efforts to harm children under a cover of deception.”

When a spouse or a child dies, that's huge. There's no minimizing it. This is like that. It’s devastating. It’s nothing like the normal fight against sin in a normal Christian family, so please don’t even make that comparison. You’ve known the offender based on what he’s said about himself and what he says and does in public, but the Bible teaches that our secret behavior matters far more than what we say about ourselves, or what we look like in public.

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.”

His family knows that their husband and father is a criminal, and he has thought, planned, and acted like a criminal, possibly for many years. Yes, this is very confusing compared to what you’ve seen of the offender in the past and how well you thought you knew him. Your confusion is normal and expected, but please do not bring your confusion to the victims for clarity or comfort. The victims are not your therapists, to help you work through your feelings about this.

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 this is not that serious, and that my first duty was to be “humble enough” to overlook crime.

Talk to your own kids
The 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. And encourage them to be the same friends they ever were. Teach them to be available if the kids want to talk about it--some do, some don't--and teach them to listen quietly and express sadness without pressing for details.

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 really can’t do that work 24/7, so respite is important. Modest entertainment can be a welcome distraction that gives the whole family times of peace, and opportunities to build new memories. Depending on the family, options could include a gift certificate to a theater, bowling, a picnic at the park, or having everyone over for pizza and a movie. A weekend away may be an enormous comfort.

Expect distress
Kids may have a LOT of stress and anxiety with the changes. Even very positive changes can feel frightening, and this might come out in a lot of fighting, bickering, complaining, and resistance that wasn't there before. Also, sometimes siblings who were harmed (often everyone is harmed, but in different ways) will mistreat a sibling who reminds them of the offender. The mix of pain and recovery is very confusing, painful, and not at all pretty or 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.” This is a terribly harmful approach to their suffering.

Be available long-term
Nothing magical is going to happen in the next year, or in the next five years that is going to turn this into a good thing. God is a mighty deliverer and healer, and God remembers what happened, but it is always going to be bad, sad, and terrible. There will always be moments to remember and tell the truth.

Offer what you have
You have unique gifts and abilities. Many small kindnesses may add up to great comfort. Since 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 you could use it to help, and then offer it.

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