Sunday, 25 October 2015

Christian Lay Counselling: Supporting Parents at the Expense of Protecting Children

There is a common occurrence within counselling in fundamentalist churches, in which a lay person, often someone with some experience or some qualifications, but not truly qualified, opens a client-therapist relationship with a fellow church member. Depending on the community, it could be a member of another church, who comes highly recommended by other church community members.

In the case of families with undisclosed or unacknowledged abuse, this situation can be highly damaging. A situation like this occurred within my own family on several separate occasions, with several different people who attempted to perform as lay counsellors to my parents.

In the first situation, the lay counsellor, a woman whose education was in nursing, and whose experience was working with teenage mothers, attempted to work with my father as a lay counsellor. This was after I had moved out, at 17, which bizarrely, after many years of involvement with that church, was the first sign the church noticed that there was a problem in my home. When the church began to acknowledge that there was a problem, they recommended that my father see her for counselling. She tried to work with him by setting some proposed limits on his abusive behaviour. To my knowledge she never reported his abuse, although she was aware of it. She didn't experience much success with him, and when he eventually left the family home (he was convicted of three counts of child abuse in a plea bargain) and was no longer open to seeing her, she moved on to act as a counsellor to my mother. My mother was also abusive (although not to the same degree as my father) and neglectful, and this woman was aware of this but to my knowledge did not report it. I can state that she was aware of my mother's abuse and neglect because I had knowledge of her attempts to help my mother change her behaviour.

She made repeated attempts to help my mother by helping her clean up the house, which was extremely unhygienic. This was a highly unsuccessful venture. The house would simply become extremely unhygienic again, shockingly quickly. My father had maintained a high degree of control over the day to day running of the house, and without him there, my mother was not forced to keep the house clean and was not motivated to do it, on her own, or for the sake of her children who were living there. When trying to help my mother keep the house clean did not work, and trying to teach her to keep the house clean did not work, this woman turned to the children. I was not living at the house for most of this, but after my father was no longer living there I spent time there frequently (eventually I returned to live in the house for another year). During this time this woman also became friends with my mother, and it always remained unclear what part of her involvement was due to the friendship and what part was considered lay counselling.

She started out by requiring the children who remained in the home to clean the house with her. When this had no lasting impact on the state of the house, things became more tense. She had originally tried to help my mother mend her abusive and neglectful behaviour, but the tension in the house continued to increase. My siblings and I had placed the blame for all the abuse and neglect at my father's feet, in court, since he was the more abusive parent. However, this came with the expectation that when given a chance, my mother would be a better parent. This didn't work out, as she continued to spiral out of control. While I have empathy for her position as a fellow victim as well as an abuser, she continued to spiral for several years, at the expense of the quality of life of my siblings. 

My siblings and I became frustrated with her inability to take over responsibility for the running of her home. She couldn't coordinate comings and goings, budgeting, meal planning, household hygiene and food safety, and she wasn't able to parent her children. 

The lay counsellor attempted to change tack again and be a family counsellor for the whole family. However, she had gotten to know my mother quite well, and for whatever reason, was convinced that my mother was being re-victimized by her children. At that point the 9 children ranged in age from 20 to 5. Other people from my mother's church got involved in the lay counselling as well, and the original lay counsellor became less involved. My siblings and I, not months after sitting in court telling our story of abuse, were told by the church and the religious lay counsellors they brought into our lives, that our mother would be a better mother, if only we were better children. 

The older children were accused of usurping the parent role, for parenting the younger children when my mother failed to do so. Our offence lay in helping them get through their daily lives, insisting on a certain level of behaviour, routine, and hygiene. These people enabled my mother to continue a highly dependent lifestyle, simply substituting church community figures to submit to, instead of my father. As these people remained in denial of the abuse and neglect that occurred, their input into our lives was heavily centred on how to make my mother's life better, sprinkled with advice regarding continuing to respect our father. My mother depended on the lay counsellors for advice and financial assistance and parenting, to minutiae. My siblings and I repeatedly requested that the church and lay counsellors become less involved but that was treated as a disrespectful and ludicrous suggestion. It also seemed to us that the lack of success caused emotional distress to those involved, and that their efforts became more about experiencing the gratification of achieving some recognizable success, than it was about actually helping anyone involved. 

There was another woman, also loosely affiliated with the church, became involved in the lay counselling in a scenario that was almost a perfect replica of the situation I just outlined, except that she was never involved with my father, and she was a counselling student with a Christian distance education program, and claimed that my mother was her senior project, apparently filling out reports on her work with my mother. They also claimed a friendship, and that situation also evolved into her coming into the home and claiming that my mother would have been a better mother if my siblings were better children. She took part in trying to clean the house, but again to my knowledge, never reported the abuse and neglect she observed there. 

In the third situation, a pastor of a church that was loosely affiliated with our church, worked as a counsellor. My understanding is that unlike the first lay counsellors in this post, he had some education and some standards for his work, including confining his counselling to his church office rather than entering the home. It started out quite similarly to the first situation, with the counsellor coming highly recommended. He also heavily relied on religious materials and ideology in his work, which was to be expected. He also experienced no success in counselling my father, and also had a failed attempt to do to marriage counselling with both my parents. To the best of my knowledge, he was also made fully aware of the abuse and never reported it. In my parents' marriage counselling, as described to me by my mother, he did emphasize that my father should treat my mother better, but he was always oriented towards full reconciliation as the goal, rather than on changed attitudes and behaviours as the goal in a situation where there was significant abuse and neglect. 

When this counsellor experienced complete failure in facilitating reconciliation, he moved on to trying to counsel some of my siblings. However, he actually brought my parents' files with him to those counselling sessions and relied on them to inform of him of the presenting issues for my siblings, rather than allowing them to present their concerns to him directly. His counselling sessions with my siblings were prematurely broken off as well, and my siblings expressed dissatisfaction with their sessions with him. All of these failures were openly understood by our church to be based in some moral deficit on the part of my family members, which only added to the othering that my family faced at the hands of the church. 

I have referenced the Canadian Association of Social Workers "Guidelines for Ethical Practice", to explain the problems that happened in those three scenarios. I chose a social work code of ethics because that is my educational background, and also because even though those three lay counsellors were not responsible to any association in their role as lay counsellors, I feel that is still reasonable to look to a code of ethical behaviour when discussing their actions in a position of power, that affected my minor aged siblings. 
On page 8 of the PDF in the above link, 1.6.1 states that those who are aware of child abuse and/or neglect, need to report this to the proper authorities. There is no evidence that any of those lay counsellors ever made a child protection report, and certainly none of them claim to do have done so. Items 2.1.1, 2.3.1, and 2.3.3 outline the responsibility of a social worker to look out for the well-being of vulnerable persons, in this case my siblings, and to take care in situations involving clients who are related to each other, and when personal friendships are involved. 

As I outlined above, there were personal relationships between my mother and the lay counsellors who later moved on to try to counsel my siblings without their consent, with the counselling largely revolving around asking my siblings to be better children if they wished to be better taken care of. Having a child go to therapy with a counsellor who is so enmeshed with the parents places the child at a distinct disadvantage. For example in these cases, any words against the parents were directly reported back to my mother, for her to deal with as she wished. Also, after several months of involvement and awareness of the abuse at play, there was no hope from my siblings that these people would report the abuse and neglect, so these counselling sessions were really just scolding sessions where the lay counsellor informed my siblings of their shortcomings. 

This is not to be a generalized statement against lay counselling, and surely some lay counsellors must be able to provide counselling among family members without this kind of harm being done, but the lack of protection for children in such situations is deplorable and should be shocking. When lay counsellors are recommended to families in distress, they should be held to some kind of standard and care should be taken not to harm children in the process - which shouldn't even need to be said! but clearly it needs to be. There is no escape or protection for a homeschooled, isolated child who is put in contact with an incompetent lay counsellor, with the full knowledge and agreement of the church.

Monday, 2 February 2015

The Curse of Being Bound to an Image

It's been over nine years since I left my parents and over time my perception of how much progress I've made in my life has changed many times, fluctuating between sometimes thinking I am doing a terrible job at being an adult and sometimes thinking I am doing well. Through some enlightening conversations I've had recently with my friend James, who is in my cohort of ex-fundamentalists, I've come to realize that in spite of everything that I re-evaluated and realized since I left, I missed a very important thing. (I am not going to say that I missed one very important thing because I am sure that there are other things I've missed as well.)

Here it is: we were raised to believe that there is a pre-set standard for what adulthood should look like. I was given to understand that I should grow up and get married at age 18-21, give or take, and after that point I should be completely mature and adult. There would be no need for further growth or any further emotional development. I should have my spirituality completed settled and sorted out, and I should not be different in any way, other than age, from any other married woman who was, say 40  or 50 (the same message was given to young men, although it was gendered differently).

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Lists of Survivor Stories and Blogs

If you are reading my blog, you may have found it through a list of survivor blogs, but just in case, I wanted to share the list of  spiritual abuse Survivor Blogs compiled by Libby Anne, The hyperlink will take you to her page on Patheos.

You can check out the list of Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network on No Longer Quivering, also hosted on Patheos.

I also recommend reading the stories posted on Homeschoolers Anonymous; these are the stories of people who were homeschooled; some are sad stories of abuse and educational neglect, and some are positive experiences.

And if you are interested in reading about some suggestions on Responsible Homeschooling, check out the work done by the Coalition for Responsible Home Education.

Happy reading!

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

The Impact of Parental Values and Opinions on Educational Outcomes: My Perspective

The impact of attitudes towards education, especially higher education, and its impact on adult life, has recently come up in discussion in the home school survivor community. We all have different experiences and heard variations of different messages while growing up in homeschooling families. Here is my experience:

My parents didn't place much value on education. We were homeschooled in a way, meaning we were at home and some effort was made to buy books and teach lessons. But the underlying organization and structure wasn't there, and they didn't have the motivation or follow through to make it happen. We received a relatively decent education in the first few grades, I assume; we learned to read and do basic math in those years. But no one received any education past about grade 6-8, depending on the subject. 

They taught that you didn't need college or university to succeed in life. They said that because we were homeschooled, we were special, and people would understand that and recognize the extraordinary intelligence we were gifted with

Friday, 3 October 2014

Socialization and Psychological Maltreatment: Isolating Children and Teenagers

This post deals with parents isolating and controlling their children’s social interactions; of course my parents and many other homeschooling parents have engaged in many other forms of control, but this is one that people don't seem to realize is a problem. Below, I give some examples of social isolation and control in my own life, and then reference work from Roberta Hibbard, Jane Barlow, and Harriet MacMillan to show how social isolation can be a serious problem for children who are subjected to it.

    As I have said in previous posts, many of the people who were involved with my family over the years still don't really get what the problem was. They will admit that my parents were a bit overprotective. Depending on the day they might even admit that my parents were controlling. But they always cycle back to trying to convince me that my parents were just doing their best, just trying to keep us safe. Then sometimes the same people concede that not everything was perfect but assure me that my father has changed. I don't spend much time around people who think they are in a position to re-write my history for me.

    Once when I was about 15, I was something like friends with the neighbour girl. She was about 2 years older than me, and very conservative (more so than we were, in some ways - they attended a very conservative Mennonite church). Her parents and my parents ran in the same circles and spent time together talking about fundamentalism

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Navigating the Justice System Part III: As a Young Adult

Please see also Navigating the Justice System Part 1: Alone at Age 9 and Navigating the Justice System: When my Parents Went to Court

When I was about 17, I moved out. Once it was truly clear to me that what happened in my home was abusive and not normal I decided to try to end the abuse for everyone. I started making regular calls to Children's Aid on my father. I had to get help making these calls because Children's Aid did not take my calls seriously because I was perceived as a disgruntled daughter (I was a disgruntled daughter, I suppose - but it didn't negate what I had to say). There had already been multiple closed investigations on my family, and my parents presented as godly people who were just doing the best they could do with very little money and terribly rebellious children (although the social workers were always impressed with our obedience). I had help from guidance counsellors at my high school, and from the family I was staying with.

This process exacted a steep personal cost. I had to relive what had happened constantly, and I worried that if this bid for freedom

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

How I Was Almost Rescued from Abuse

A few months I wrote a post called Navigating the Justice System Part 1: Alone at 9 Years Old. This post is the story of what it was like for me to experience a Children's Aid investigation and a court case, from my perspective as a child. It skips pretty quickly over what the social workers were like and what they did, and I didn't talk very much about the involvement of other agencies and groups.

The Coalition for Responsible Home Education is an organization that advocates for homeschooled children. Their mission is "to raise awareness of the need for homeschooling reform, provide public policy guidance, and advocate for responsible home education practices". Their vision is "for homeschooling to be a child-centered educational option, used only lovingly prepare young people for an open future".

The CRHE has started a blog on their website, and with some collaboration from CRHE personnel, I have written a piece that has been posted on their blog, called How I was Almost Rescued from Abuse. In this post I elaborate on what the social workers were like, and I provide a more thorough explanation of the rationale behind the court cases and what the goals were. Rather than posting the text here, I encourage you to click on the link in this paragraph and visit the CRHE to read the post.