healing from child sexual abuse

Feminist Justice--September 7, 1993

Dear People,

It was wrenching last night to hear Debbie, Sandy and Keith describe how
they had decided their children needed protection from the other parent.
It is a very brave thing to share one's pain and personal experience as
openly as you three did, and I thank you for letting us share that
experience. Thank you, too, Fran and Mary, for adding your experience to
the discussion.

I didn't expect it would be an hour-and-a-half before the rest of you
joined the discussion. I'm hoping that after we watch the video "Women on
Trial" next week we'll hear more from you. The comments and questions you
posed last night, and the essays Holly, Angie and Michelle gave me,
indicate two reactions to what we have heard and read thus far: You are
aghast at how the legal system fails children, and you want us to
recognize how dangerous child sexual abusers are and "eliminate" the
threat to children they pose. Sandy is clear that she and her daughter
very much want the child's father to be prosecuted and sent to prison for
a long spell. In the spell of the moment, all of us feel a need to DO
SOMETHING, not to be the passive bystanders Mary and others talked about.

The difficult question remains: What "something" will actually give the
children safety and healing from the pain and terror they must have
suffered? I want to share my own general answer to the question in this
weekly letter. I consider punishment of child abusers a threat to
children's rights and safety. I'm well aware that I'm in a minority
position. I welcome continuing disagreement. Last night after class,
Debbie, Sandy, Keith, Mary and I talked over where this book of ours is
headed. I intended the syllabus as a kind of book outline, but now, the
morning after our discussion and reading your essays, I don't think we
ought to rush ahead with a plan until we see where class discussion is
headed. What we may discover is that our dialogue in class and in writing
takes off on the question I'm raising in this class letter. It is clear
that we all want to figure out how to help the children. I'm assuming we
are a diverse enough group in the class that we can spontaneously raise
and consider the kinds of questions general readers of a book would be
thinking about. I'm interested to see what comes back when I take what I
know is a controversial stand on what children need to have happen to
abusive parents.

I have two fundamental beliefs about what children's rights and safety
require: We have to make the parties at hand trustworthy; we cannot
simply replace them with other child protectors. Second, one of the
crucial parties is the abusive parent; to heal and end the recurring
nightmare of abuse, children need to be able to love any parent safely.

Last night Debbie gave you the kind of overview of the situation of
children and parents acting on children's allegations of abuse that
Michelle Eitlin and others in next week's readings offer. You may try to
explain the peculiar corruption or ineptness of this or that professional,
but the fact remains that somehow, children do not get evaluated in these
situations, and if they do, courts don't deal with the evidence at hand.
This is more than some personal quirk or incompetence. It suggests that
if we replace the bastards, we just as likely to get the same behavior
from among those who replace them. If standing by without listening to
children permeates the way lawyers respond to evidence of child abuse,
perhaps it is because lawyers are as liable as any of the rest of us to be
abusive at home, or to have grown up abused or having to keep silent about
the abuse one saw. Why should those who train therapists or practice
therapy for instance be any freer of these limitations than any other

There's a logic to U.S. family law I respect. We lay odds that among all
those who might claim to act in the best interests of children, our best
guarantor of genuine protection is to leave it to the discretion of
parents. We bet on the strength of the bond of love and commitment
implied by being a parent. We bet that parents will know their children
better than anyone else. In support of this presumption, child welfare
workers have told me that an abusive life with one's own parents is odds
on to be safer than a foster placement. Nor, I remind myself, do I or any
of us who have not met the children know them well enough to start laying
down what to say to them or ask of them. We can't rid ourselves of the
endemic problem of declining to listen to children and act on what they
tell us as Debbie, Sandy and Keith have done simply by taking abusive
parents away from children. I think instead we have to think through how
it is safe to allow children to relate to all these parties, parents
included, under the assumption that the children and the rest of us have
to live with the (would-be) child protectors we've got.

I also think it is crucial to ending the recurring nightmare of abuse for
children ultimately to feel safe enough to confront their abuser with
their pain and anger, and demand explanation in front of others, and to
feel that one has found a safe way to share love with one's abuser. I am
about to argue the same proposition in my alternative social control
systems class where we are discussing rape and battering of women. I'm
attaching a reading from that class, "Incest: The Theft of Childhood--A
Survivor's Story," by Dave Gustafson, a Mennonite minister who "oversees
the Face-to-Face Program in Langley [British Columbia, Canada] operated by
the Fraser Region Community Justice Intiatives Association, 29678
Eastleigh Crescent #101, Langley, B.C. Canada V3Z 4C4" (Interaction,
spring 1991, pp. 12-13). It is a story of confrontation and
reconciliation between a mother and the father who had molested her.

Dave has a number of stories like this to tell. So do other survivors,
like those who belong to the group called Murder Victims' Families for
Reconciliation. In his project with Canadian prison authorities, he
offers survivors of serious violence the opportunity to videotape their
questions to pose to their offenders in prison, who are then videotaped
responding. There are a number of ways to help survivors of incest and of
other abuse feel safe enough to begin somehow to communicate with the
person whose actions have given them nightmares, to know it is safe not to
have to pretend that abuse is lovable, to see the problem become the
offender's rather than theirs, and emerge feeling something reassuring has
come from a non-threatening encounter with one's abuser. As I listen to
accounts of those whose nightmares have ended and those whose nightmares
continue, I keep finding that survivors who sleep well have laid
experience of a new, safe relationship with the offender over the
recurring image of that person having become one's monster.

Early on in our acquaintance, Debbie and Mary put it to me this way: to
heal, children in these situations have to be able to love both parents,
and to learn, if possible, the love they inspire in parents who also give
way to terrifying violence. The need is universal. We all crave signs
that our parents love and accept us even if we refuse or neglect to do
what they want us to do. We want to be able to love our parents rather
than fear them, and if we cannot, I fear that no amount of reassurance can
get us over the nagging doubt that we are capable enough of love and trust
to receive love and trust in return. I think it only compounds a child's
pain to be told that if you want us to protect you, you are going to have
to tell a story about your daddy or mommy which puts him or her in prison.
It's up to you, kid. That only reinforces the child's sense of being
solely responsible for dealing with the problem. This is also true of
battered women who return home and withdraw prosecution. As Toby Strout
of Middle Way House, our regional women's shelter, put it in feminist
justice last year, we ought somehow to recognize and respect the desire to
love one's abuser. The trick is how to offer safety from the abuse while
love gets respected.

My utopia is roughly this--that safe, community-owned-and-operated
overnight youth shelter and counseling/advocacy services would be as
available as freely as schooling. In principle this should cost less to
build and operate than the law enforcement/detention/prison apparatus we
are building and operating now. The law would give a child the unimpeded
right to call to be picked up and stay in the shelter. The shelter could
be available with youth programs as a kind of vacation-getaway for
children (and for their parents); if all children were expected to avail
themselves of the shelter now and then, no stigma would attach to those
who did. At any time a sheltered child could request a supervised meeting
with a parent before returning home. Actually, the local Youth Shelter on
Atwater by campus performs this service on a small scale already. Parents
would have a right to arrange supervised visitation with children at all
times. Independent counseling/advocacy services would be available to

One message last night rang through to me loudest: children know when
they don't feel safe going off alone with a parent, and ought to be able
to stay somewhere else instead if they wish. Children can talk about
their fears and hopes, and are capable of helping plan where to go from
there. The remedy for whatever fear and powerlessness they feel is to
offer them more options to choose than prosecution or going home. In fact
it's a good bet that pressure to criminalize abuse keeps children silent
out of fear of hurting a parent more than they care to.

I'm thinking that if we allow ourselves to talk to children with the
understanding that they can have space from unsupervised time with their
parents if they wish, we can in every case discover safe ways for the
child to relate to the once-dangerous parent. That's what I call making
the parent trustworthy. Angry as we may be at the pain abusers cause, I
don't think we can help the children by putting the abusers away.

What do you think? Love and peace, Hal