If I had a nickel for every person who shared with me that they had been sexually abused, I’d be richer than Jeff Bezos.
Sexual abuse is a topic rarely discussed in “polite” company. Beyond high-profile cases, like the Nassar fiasco, countess instances of brutal abuse happen unimpeded. Children are victimized and traumatized, creating everlasting harm to them and to society. April has been designated as Child Abuse Prevention month. This post is only coincidental to that.
The accounts I hear come entirely from parents who are/were homeless. I’ve heard them in context of my previous job as shelter director, often when I had to confront inappropriate behavior to avoid kicking someone out (which I hated to do). One angry young mom shared that her mom’s boyfriend abused and impregnated her when she was 11 (her story, and that of many others, are in my book, Crossing the Line: Taking Steps to End Homelessness).
Since the very beginning of my unconventional journey under my nonprofit’s banner, HEAR US Inc., I’ve continued interviewing kids and parents experiencing homelessness. It’s become brutally routine to hear stories of abuse, typically by family members or those in immediate circles, not the stranger raping women in dark alleys.
About 10 years ago, my colleague Laura Vazquez and I were filming interviews for our award-winning documentary, on the edge: Family Homelessness in America in a Louisiana shelter. On our last night we issued a the last call for interviews to the women. A sizable line formed.
One-by-one we began the interview process. One-by-one, the women unabashedly shared stories of horrific abuse. It wouldn’t take a social scientist to connect the trauma with their homelessness.
And while I often lose track of my subjects, I am in contact with a handful. Recently I visited “Tina” whose path crossed mine about 8 years ago. At the time she was about to involuntarily check out of her motel room, headed to a 13’ camper with her 6 young children.
We kept in touch, and she eventually shared with me the (sadly) common tale of her mother’s boyfriend sexually abusing her, her mother refusing to believe her, choosing the boyfriend over her young daughter.
Later we discussed the generational pattern of her mother having been abused as a child. Tina has worked to come to grips with what has happened, resiliently distancing herself from her mother (“She’s too toxic for me. I love her but can’t be around her.”) And she’s resolute about breaking this cycle.
Tina has moved into what I consider a happy chapter of her life. She married “Craig,” a low-key, gentle man a few years older with 2 kids of his own. Their families blended nicely. They spend a lot of time with horses, informal equine therapy. They have a nice home. Tina smiled a lot on my last visit.
DISCLAIMER: For sake of writing a post instead of a book about childhood sexual abuse, let me say the ingredients in many stories I’ve heard are painfully similar. The impact of childhood trauma, of which sexual abuse is a prime factor, devastates the self-worth of the victim.
I’m not a mental health professional. But I’ve seen, read and heard enough to believe that many of the so-called “poor choices” of homeless children, youth, and adults can be traced back to the traumas they’ve experienced. Addictions, destructive behavior, mental health disorders, relational issues and more can be explained if we bother to gently and respectfully look beyond the immediate problems into childhood (and adult) experiences.
Watch on the edge, listening to these 7 women talk about what caused their homelessness. Trauma is a common factor. Sexual abuse impacted some, violence others. The stories are real, and reflect what many women (and men) would talk about if given the chance. (Discussion guide, PDF)
Having witnessed what I have over the past 3 decades of my work with homeless families, youth and adults, I’ve struggled for ways to express the impact of rampant sexual abuse on those victimized. Let’s call it what it is, annihilation of humans.
Some, like Tina, are “lucky enough” to move beyond being impaired by her experiences, a fragile process. We blame them for being homeless. We erase public benefits that would protect vulnerable individuals and families from the devastation of poverty. We stigmatize those whose disabilities overcome their ability to live self-sufficient lives.
I think trauma really does confront you with the best and the worst. You see the horrendous things that people do to each other, but you also see resiliency, the power of love, the power of caring, the power of commitment, the power of commitment to oneself, the knowledge that there are things that are larger than our individual survival. Dr. Bessel van der Kolk
Worst of all, we allow the abuse to continue — abusers impervious and pervasive — from the abuser-in-chief to college professors, clergy, coaches, educators and beyond.
Seems to me we need to commit to give kids the opportunity they deserve to thrive. That, at the very least, means sex abuse of children has to be annihilated. It will take more than declaring April as Child Abuse Prevention month to strengthen home environments, provide basic human needs — food, health care, education, etc., and remove abusers from any possibility of continuing their aberrant actions.
Anything short of that is a betrayal of children.