Brandy’s note: This blog is based on exit survey feedback to our family’s social service providers.
Let me start by saying I appreciate what you all do. We came to your agency because we needed to. But you chose this job and you choose to work with some of the most difficult aspects of humanity day after day. Your work is so necessary and is not compensated or celebrated as much as other helping occupations. Thank you for devoting yourself to helping children and parents during the darkest parts of our lives.
With that in mind I would like to respectfully share some thoughts based on my own experience; things that I wish had been different, as well as things that were done well and which I appreciated.
Parents who have just found out their child was sexually abused have received one of the biggest shocks of their lives. It overwhelms not only our emotions but our ability to think rationally. If you meet us at this time, you are not seeing us at our best or even at our normal selves. If we get emotional or angry, try not to take it personally, but rather as a sign that we need help.
Please do not assume we will remember everything you tell us the first time. Provide information in both speaking and writing, or at least ask which we prefer. Please understand that if we decline a service or say we are OK, we may not really even know what we need or how we feel yet. Check again in a few days or in a few weeks.
Be mindful of other appointments and demands on families’ time, finances, and mental energy at this time. Remember that all the other commitments and stresses that were already present in our lives won’t stop while we deal with our children’s trauma and/or abusive behavior. We may not be able to think more than a day or two in advance because there are so many things hitting us at once, and our brains are on overload.
Remember that this world, “the system”, is totally new to most of us. We have no idea what to expect, no context in which to put what is happening to us. Try not to use social service or legal jargon without explaining what it means. Things as simple as who makes appointments, what each appointment is for, how long various processes will take, whether to contact you by phone or text or email, can be barriers to locating or receiving help.
You may see many clients and see similarities between cases, but remember that there is no typical case. Everyone’s situation is unique in some way. Look for ways that our family’s situation is different than what you usually see. Try to tailor educational materials as much as possible to the type of abuse, age of the survivor and offender, relationship between them, age of disclosure, cultural background, etc.
When your best materials differ from our family’s situation, acknowledge and explain that. It can be confusing and discouraging to be given information that doesn’t apply to our particular circumstances. Examples might include assuming abusive behavior was by an adult rather than by another child, or assuming the abuse was still happening when it was disclosed rather than years in the past.
Be honest and transparent from the start. It is the only way to build the trust needed to support us. If you have to do something because it is required by law or by another agency, explain that from the start. If you wish you didn’t have to do it, go ahead and say that, too.
If a child or parent needs support that your agency can’t provide or that you don’t have at your fingertips, please help us find it. Don’t assume we will have the search skills, time, or mental energy to find it on our own.
It would be especially helpful to have referral information available for various kinds of legal help. Parents may be facing issues of preserving or changing custody, immigration status, rights as parents of victims in the criminal legal system, prosecution of the child who caused harm, getting a child into treatment for harmful sexual behavior, losing housing, etc. Early decisions made without understanding the legal consequences can have major implications down the road. Social service providers can’t give legal advice, but should be aware that many families will need the help of legal advocates.
Finally, no matter how skilled or experienced you are in your profession, you cannot replace the support that comes from other parents who have experienced the same thing. The sooner families are connected to peer support, the better. If there is no in-person group, online support (see below) is much better than nothing. Hearing “a lot of parents feel like that,” is quite different than, “I have been there, I know how it feels.”
Facebook support group: Parents Coping with Sibling Sexual Trauma & Abuse
Facebook support group for parents of any child who has been sexually abused: MOSAC Chat Page for Mothers
Discord support group: contact firstname.lastname@example.org