Thursday, November 29, 2012

The "System" is Abusive: Why Compassion for All Heals Wounds of Abuses

“The system is abusive,” the homeless man told me as he shared his story with me.              

This was many years ago that he shared his story with me, many years ago when I was young and living in Seattle.

He told me what it was like staying in a shelter -- how lights went out at 10 PM or 11 PM and how you had to be up and out by 7 AM.  How you couldn’t drink or use drugs in the shelter.

I understood those rules.  Many homeless people use drugs and alcohol, but drug use is a coping strategy that harms the user.  I also understood the shelter hours.  Shelter is provided but you really don’t want people to become dependent; you want them to move forward and onward.

But as I worked with abuse survivors, I heard more details as to why these seemingly sensible rules don’t work.  The survivor who felt loved only by his dog could not go to a shelter because he could not take his dog.  The homeless female survivor who was married to another homeless survivor could find no shelters that took couples.  In all these cases all the survivors would have had to leave their primary source of emotional support in order to have shelter over their heads.

I also discovered that much more help with housing exists for homeless people who have drug and alcohol problems and other psychiatric problems than for the ordinary homeless person who lost job and home and is having trouble pulling themselves up without a mailing address or phone or computer or the ability to maintain decent, clean clothes and take a shower.

Moreover, we “housed” people truthfully have trouble understanding what it is like to be that insecure.  I’ve found the people who work with the homeless to be good and caring people, but sometimes there is a disconnect and their compassion gets expressed imperfectly or not at all.

The homeless are not the only ones struggling with an “abusive system."

First, let me make a disclaimer, All the people I've met who worked for Child Protective Services compassionate people wanting to do their best to advocate for children.  The same goes for all the therapists I’ve ever met.  They are all good, kind people trying to heal a broken world or at least broken individuals.

All the same, I hear complaints.

A few years back I met a frantic grandmother who kept on trying to report the obvious abuses her grandson kept experiencing at the hand of his mother, only to be told, “You are the problem.”

One problem CPS has is knowing what to do with accusations of abuse that are a little too old to document well.

The grandson would be taken the Emergency Room for breaking his arm, his mother says, after falling out of a tree.  The grandmother later sees very visible handprints on the boy’s arm, but because the boy was only occasionally in her care, by the time she saw these handprints and reports them to CPS,days have passed since the event causing the broken arm and the evidence is not good enough to support the accusation of abuse.  But then some other bruises appear on the boy and he tells his grandmother that his mother beat him with a stick.  Once again the accusations are made too late to obtain good documentation, and the grandmother, an immigrant who speaks imperfect English, does not understand why nothing ever happens to the mother who beats her son badly enough to break his bones at least twice in his short life.  The grandmother grows angry at CPS workers and that is when they told her, “You are the problem.”

In another case, a father reported a mother to CPS after she held her newborn baby in her arms while smoking and cooking.  She burned herself while dumping out hot pasta water while holding the baby.

She didn’t drop the baby but the father was worried about her lack of care.  They separated shortly after the baby’s birth, and he reported her to CPS.  The mother was very careful to tell CPS that the father, who was a child sex abuse survivor, suffered from chronic depression and occasional outbursts of anger from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Instead of investigating the mother’s parenting style, CPS investigated the father's mental disorder and questioned his fitness for parenting while praising the mother for being protective of her child.

Let me make a disclaimer because I think the main problem with CPS is they have too much work and too little money.  The CPS investigator in this case was in her early twenties and fresh out of college.  She soon moved on to a better paying job.

Every time a case is mishandled there are many factors causing the failure -- too little time, too little experience, a bad day or a bad week or simply a bad case.

We all have bad times.  We are human.  However, when child abuse is invoked, the stakes are very high all the way around for everyone.

I met a mother who had one child who sexually abused the other.  The abuse was disgusting but none-the-less far from the worst case I’ve ever heard about.  The family did the right thing and reported this abuse to CPS.  The child abuse advocates could not believe how the mother could love both children.  They treated the perpetrator as disposable even though he was not yet a teenager.  The family went deep into debt providing therapy for everyone all around and paying for accommodations for the perpetrator who could no longer have any contact with any siblings.  The abused child had very mixed feelings -- feelings of disgust for what had happened mixed with feelings of love for the sibling all the advocates seemed to hate.  No one outside the family acknowledged the validity of those feelings.  Fortunately the family eventually found a sympathetic therapist, but they felt deeply and profoundly wounded by child abuse activists.

That is not to say that the activists were not well meaning and caring people.  They most certainly were.  But maybe the model is wrong.

To be fare to CPS and the advocates for child abuse victims, not all complaints made about them are fair.  I’ve had complaints made about me.  Most recently a clergy abuse survivor contacted me and hinted she was alone for Thanksgiving.  I knew she wanted me to invite her to my house, but I’ve been going through a pro-longed family crisis that has nearly silenced this blog.  I knew that I could not bring a fragile survivor home to my kids.  I called around to my friends to see if any could come over and help interact.  All had other invitations.  It would have been just my kids and me and the survivor.  I knew that was the wrong mix. I did not invite the survivor to Thanksgiving.  The survivor stopped e-mailing me.  I am sure the survivor felt alone and uncared for although that was not my intention. 

I have found that many times when fragile survivors call me up, they share information about their plans for future actions which I know will harm the survivor.  When this happens, I have offered advice, but I’ve learned that when a person is wounded, offering advice tends to make them feel judged and unsupported.  I’ve been more successful offering advice only when asked for it.

From my experience, when someone complains about me, even when there is unfairness in the complaints, it challenges me to be a better, more compassionate listener.

What I can do, what I am struggling to learn to do, is to listen unconditionally, without judgement and when I do, the person sharing their story opens up and trusts and shares their story more completely.

I’ve been working with someone who made mistakes with her child and paid a high price in losing that child.  She hates telling her story because telling her story involves her telling about her mistakes.  The facts of her story are not all sympathetic, which causes her great shame and doubles her pain.  At the same time she needs to tell her story to process what happened and to find a way forward.  She has refused on many occasions to tell the full story to me.  It comes out in bits and pieces, here and there.  Recently when we were speaking, her phone died.  I thought I had offended her and caused her pain, inspiring her to hang up on me.  So I wrote her a kind e-mail apologizing for unintentionally saying something that hurt her.  She called me back immediately and told me more of her difficult story and shared more about the child she lost.  She had never abused her daughter or left her uncared for.  She had only made mistakes in her relationship with her ex-husband.  Even those mistakes were ones of trusting the wrong person and not of perpetrating abuse herself.

I listened impatiently because I was busy and facing a deadline for some of my work.  Then I realized what a tremendous compliment this woman was giving me.  I have known her for seven months.  She has been mistreated and disbelieved by so many people in the “system” that she took seven months to tell me some of her most painful secrets.

To reiterate, she shared her deepest, most painful secrets because I had apologized and expressed compassion for her.  In expressing compassion for her pain over losing her daughter, I had become a part of her healing process.

This life is wounding.  Yes, there are joys, weddings, the birth of a baby, sunrises and sunsets and waterfalls and wildflowers.........

But much of what happens to us is painful.  A child is abused or wounded in some way.  The messy adult survivor continues to struggle many years later with drug addiction, homelessness and broken relationships but no one wants to care for that messy adult. The mother, the father, the brothers and sisters, the whole community are all wounded by the abuse in their own way.  Each struggles with their own experiences.  Our current model is to treat the abused child as a discreet unit.  The wounded child receives our compassion most readily.  The mother and father and brother and sister of the survivor all remain less visible.  The view is adults can take care of themselves, but who us going to take care of a child not relegated to the foster care system -- the mother or the father or the older brother or sister.  How can we not care about the whole family?

I first read about Restorative Justice relative to abuse in 2005 and it was like being struck by lightning. The article recounted how justice was handled by many American Indian tribes before we white people wiped out most of their culture.  Everyone in the tribe would sit in a talking circle and each person would share their side of the story of a crime.  All were listened to with respect.  I knew here was an answer.  I got my start as an advocate for survivors after an abusive priest was removed from my parish.  The survivor advocacy groups only spoke about wounded survivors.  The church leadership kept insisting that we parishioners needed to respect the priest and what he wanted and needed for healing.  Meanwhile attendance at mass dropped by one third.  I wondered why parish leadership seemed paralyzed and unable to address the fact that their parish was deeply wounded and struggling.  Eventually, by searching the internet for answers the Church leadership left unanswered, I realized that Church leadership was aware of accusations of abuse against this priest going back twenty years.  The coverup of abuse left a huge trail of abuse over many years.  I connected the wounds of the elderly parishioners who had never been told any details of the abuses perpetrated by the priest they continued to love and support to the wounds of the survivor whose story had been denied for 20 years.

I realized the whole community is wounded by abuse and the whole community needs to be involved in the healing process.  This is also true for families.  The whole family is wounded by abuse and maybe there needs to be concerns for the healing of all the family members, not just the survivor, because who is going to care for the survivor unless they become a ward of the state?  We heal wounds by listening to everyone on all sides of a crime with compassion and respect.  There have to be consequences for a perpetrator of abuse such as placing him in prison for the rest of his natural life, but we accomplish the most healing and gain the most information about the abuses perpetrated and receive the most support for the the survivors when we are compassionate with everyone.

Copyright 2012 Virginia Pickles Jones

Please donate to help me continue this work.

No comments:

Post a Comment