Last week, a presentation I recorded in December went “live” at the International San Diego Conference on Child and Family Maltreatment. In my presentation I discussed the often-overlooked needs and losses experienced by family members after a disclosure of intra-familial child sexual abuse. I have decided to share parts of this presentation in this post for a few reasons: 1. Clinicians need to be aware of these impacts so they can help their client process them during treatment 2. Churches have the opportunity to minister to hurting families post-disclosure 3. Understanding the inevitable losses debunks myths about false accusations.
Relational Loss: many perpetrators do not act “all bad” within the family unit. In fact, they are often loved and trusted by family members. Following many disclosures in which law enforcement and child protective services become involved, the perpetrator and other family members are separated. In my family, my mom and siblings and I moved from the home we shared with my abuser. Despite the horrific crimes my abuser committed, he had been a constant in our lives for over 7 years. My siblings and I loved our cousins/aunts/uncles/grandma on that side of the family. In what seemed like an instant, those relationships were irreparably damaged. While the relational loss to my abuser was absolutely necessary and what we needed, the rationality of it did not squelch the pain of losing family. Young children will likely have great difficulty comprehending why they now can’t go visit Auntie who lives just up the street. Clinicians need to be prepared for complicated grief when relationships end abruptly due to child abuse. Churches can minister to families by increasing social support, filling the void that now exists.
Economic Loss: when the perpetrator is a primary caregiver/breadwinner, the family will likely incur significant financial impact. Because I grew up in a small, rural town where “everybody knows everybody,” I was signed up for counseling an hour away from home. This meant at least once a week, we were traveling over two hours round trip for mental health services. Gas money, co-pays, and time off from work = financial loss (though it was well worth the expense). Families may no longer have extra Children may not be able to participate in extra-curricular activities due to the loss of income. Eating at a restaurant may become a rarity when before the disclosure it was a regular occurrence. Birthdays may not be as extravagant anymore. Clinicians may consider offering a sliding fee for families seeking counseling after a sexual abuse disclosure. Even if the discounted rate is for a limited time, it will significantly help as a family begins rebuilding their lives. Churches can offer financial assistance to the family or sponsor a child’s fees for an extra-curricular activity. Churches can hire counselors or sponsor sessions so families can access mental health services without the additional expense.
Environmental Changes: the non-offending caregiver and children may have to move from the home once shared with the perpetrator. If the non-offending caregiver is unable to care for the children, they may be placed in state custody, potentially separated from one another. Children may have to change schools, sports teams, churches, etc. My siblings and I went from each having our own bedroom to all living in one room with our mother for about a year. We were incredibly blessed to remain together and live in a home full of love; however, it was a major adjustment for us during a very stressful time. The part I grieved the most was the loss of my pets due to the environmental change. We left home one morning for school and never saw our pets again. We went from having way too many cats (in excess of 20, though they all had names and were loved dearly), bunny rabbits, and my sweet potbelly pig, Petunia (pictured below), to praying they would survive without us. To this day, I still refuse to let my mind wander about my Petunia because the pain is too great. Clinicians can help kids and families explore how their environment has changed and what impacts they notice. Churches can support families with supplies to make the transition smooth. Providing families with care kits that include hygiene items, clothes, food, toys, and other basic necessities can lift some of the burden. Sponsoring a month or a couple of months rent for a storage unit so the family can retain some of their belongings that can be retrieved when stability is established.
Clearly, this is not an exhaustive list of the losses experienced by families after a disclosure of abuse. However, I hope it provides a starting point for how you consider supporting families in need. The prevalence of false accusations among children who disclose abuse is minimal. Most children who make a disclosure realize there will be a cost associated with telling the secret. This post reveals a glance at some of those costs.