In today's interview, Janet defines religious child maltreatment, we talk about religious authoritarian cultures; discuss examples of religiously motivated physical, emotional and sexual abuse, and medical neglect; talk about the laws that are in place that encourage religious child maltreatment, and discuss some ways that social service providers can talk with parents about authoritarian religious communities and religious child maltreatment.
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In today’s Social Work Podcast, episode 71, Religious Child Maltreatment, I speak with award-winning journalist and author, Janet Heimlich about her book: Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment published in 2011 by Prometheus Books. I was really interested in talking with Janet because her book focuses on something that is rarely discussed in social work – the role of religion in child abuse and neglect.
I used to co-facilitate a group for parents who were trying to reunify with their children who had been removed by the state. I remember hearing the story of one mother whose 12-year-old daughter was removed from the home because she had been found walking the streets at 2am along with the prostitutes and drug dealers. When her mother was telling the story in group she said, “The police brought her to my house and I said there is nothing I can do about this child. If it is God’s will that he test me with a spiteful child then so be it. If it is God’s plan that she learn her lessons by getting raped, then I cannot do anything to prevent that from happening. Who am I to interfere with His will?” In my head I thought “Are you serious?” To the group, however, I said, “I see that a lot of you are shaking your heads. What would you like to say to her right now?” Most of the group members told her she was wrong – that god did not want little girls to get raped. Some members, however, stopped short and said that God’s will was a mysterious thing. At the time, my co-facilitator and I didn’t have the knowledge or skills to address the religious implications. Frankly we glossed over the God stuff. Which isn’t to say we always glossed over the God stuff. We were happy to talk with parents when they talked about ways that their religious beliefs made them better parents – better in the eyes of child protective services. The limited research that there is social workers’ integration of religion into their work with clients suggests that we mostly focus on the good parts of religion (Canda & Furman, 1999; Murdock, 2005; Sheridan, 2004). Social workers tend to be strengths based so we focus on the “helpfulness rather than the harmfulness of client’s spiritual or religious beliefs, practices, or support systems” (p. 158). So, my co-facilitator and I were not unusual among social workers.
And yet, according to a 2010 survey of social workers by Connie Kvarfordt from the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada, “social work practitioners recognize spiritual maltreatment as a legitimate type of abuse or neglect affecting children and adolescents…” (p. 158). She also suggests that spiritual maltreatment may be occurring often enough that it needs to be explored and addressed in social work research, education, and practice.
I’m hoping that today’s interview will be a good place to start this conversation.
In today’s interview, Janet defines religious child maltreatment, we talk about religious authoritarian cultures; discuss examples of religiously motivated physical, emotional and sexual abuse, and medical neglect; talk about the laws that are in place that encourage religious child maltreatment, and discuss some ways that social service providers can talk with parents about authoritarian religious communities and religious child maltreatment.
A couple of notes about today’s interview. The first is that Janet and I spoke over Skype and there are a couple of places where the sound gets clipped. The second is that Janet’s book focuses on and consequently our interview is about religious child maltreatment in the USA. I didn’t think much about this fact until I read an article in the 2010 volume of the British Journal of Social Work by Jan Horwath and Janet Lees from the University of Sheffield in the UK. They wrote a really nice review article about the influence of religious beliefs on parenting capacity. And one of the things they pointed out is that everyone has a different definition of religion. And not only that, the context of religious practices is different in the USA than in the UK. So this isn’t to say that those of you listening in the UK, or Canada, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, or any other country for that matter should NOT listen to today’s episode (I think it is a pretty darn good episode). I would just encourage you to think about how the ideas that Janet introduces fits or doesn’t fit with the ideas of religion in your part of the world. And now, without further ado, on to Episode 71 of the Social Work Podcast, Religious Child Maltreatment: An Interview with Janet Heimlich.
Jonathan Singer: Janet, thanks so much for being with us today on the Social Work Podcast to talk about religious child maltreatment. You've written a whole book on this topic and I suspect that most people have never heard of the term. What is religious child maltreatment?
Janet Heimlich: Well, thank you for having me, Jonathan. Religious child maltreatment is child abuse or neglect that is largely caused by religious belief and religious – these could be religious beliefs that are held by the victim, the perpetrator or the surrounding community. Before I started working on this book, the term "religious child maltreatment" literally didn't exist. At least, Google had never heard of it. I did searches on it in quotes and literally nothing came up except for maybe one or two items that I had been writing. I chose that term specifically because I felt it described the nature of these forms of abuse and neglect and some people have been bothered by the word "maltreatment" but as most members of your audience know maltreatment includes both abuse and neglect.
I'm certainly not saying that anyone that teaches their child faith that there's going to be problems nor am I saying that if it's religion-infused maltreatment that it's going to be necessarily worse than if it happened in a secular environment. But I do feel it's important to call out specifically the aspects of child abuse and neglect that are significantly influenced by religious beliefs of those involved and so that's what I've tried to do with this book.
Jonathan Singer: Well and you're really clear in your book that you're not dismissing religion. You're not pinning religious beliefs as inherently bad but you do identify something that you call a religious authoritarian culture. And from my reading of your book, it seems like that's what you suggest is or that's where the intersection of religion and child maltreatment exists.
Janet Heimlich: Right. So, I thought it was extremely important to look at where the problems lie. What causes certain kinds of faith to be healthy for children and what causes certain kinds of faith to be unhealthy. So, I observed from studying many cases, many studies and doing many interviews that there was a universal problematic theme running through a lot of these cases. When a child is being raised in a religious authoritarian culture whether that culture be a single household, a place of worship, a broader community when there are authoritarian influences, I had found that children in those environments are at greater risk for religious child maltreatment and I kind of call out three perfect storm aspects that determine whether or not it is religiously authoritarian. The first is that there's a strict social hierarchy in the culture. The second is that the culture is very fear-based and the third is that there is social separatism.
Jonathan Singer: So, how does this all affect the parent's ability to parent? What would make living in a religion – what's it called, an authoritarian religious community more conducive to a parent being more abusive or neglectful?
Janet Heimlich: Yeah, you have hit on the crux of the issue. The way that this religious authoritarian stuff affects kids in a bad way is really how it directly impacts the lives of parents. I first started to learn about the parental influence side of things when I read about harmful cults and how children are abused in cults and Margaret Singer, one of the country's biggest cult experts, define this really clearly when she noted that the parents become what she calls "middle managers" where they're allowing the influences by the cult leader to determine how they raise their kids. Parents are the ultimate protectors of children.
Most of the time, when they use their own instincts on how to raise children, they make great decisions but if they're in an environment where they're following along the norms of a group or they're say doing what their religious leader tells them to do, oftentimes it's not necessarily in the best interest of the children. Oftentimes, the decisions are made really for the betterment of the overall community. And that's not necessarily a bad thing for kids, but many times we see things like authoritarian parenting styles, excessive or a reliance on corporal punishment which can lead to abuse. Emotional and psychological issues come up because the religious indoctrination is very important and so they're kind of neglecting the child's intellectual and emotional needs.
Jonathan Singer: It's really interesting to think about parents as "middle managers." I really like that concept. Middle managers in these authoritarian communities or environments where they're having to negotiate the, you know, the needs of the community and the needs of the child. It sounds like when the needs of the child lose out, that's when it becomes child maltreatment. You divide your book into the four types of child maltreatment: Physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse and neglect, specifically medical neglect. I was wondering if you could share some examples in part because many of the folks that listen to this work with kids who've been abused or neglected or at risk for being abused or neglected and not just child welfare workers but all social workers and service providers who work with children and families and I really think that exploring this idea could help folks think more broadly about abuse and neglect by bringing in this issue of religion.
Janet Heimlich: Sure. Throughout my book, I don't focus on any particular religion. I'm looking at Christian-based cultures, Jewish-based cultures and Muslim-based cultures. When it comes to say physical abuse, corporal punishment is a big part of promoting the idea of obedience and that idea of obedience is very strong and important for everybody not just children. When it comes to emotional maltreatment, I see that as being the most widespread form and specifically exploiting. It's one of four types of emotional maltreatment that I focus on. I've interviewed one girl or excuse me, I interviewed a woman who when she was a little girl, she spent her kindergarten year in the bathroom hiding out because her mother made it clear that her role in life was to go up to the teacher, go up to her friends and anybody in the school and turn them over to Jesus, somehow. She was a shy child and this was just devastating to her to have to do that. So, a lot of times it's just really not understanding children very well and their development.
Jonathan Singer: So, in this example, the intersection of emotional abuse and religion is the parents forcing the child to proselytize, something that she was so terrified to do that she spent a year hiding out in the bathroom and wasn't able to interact with her peers. She wasn't able to engage in what we call, "normative social development."
Janet Heimlich: Right. A child will become what I call a "little preacher." Get up in front of the congregation or go out into the community and save souls and that kind of thing and sometimes that could be very rewarding for a child to take on that role but oftentimes at least from the interviews I did, it was really stressful on the child to assume that kind of responsibility and one thing that I learned when I was looking at issues of psychological maltreatment is that to identify it, you don't need to provide evidence that the child is negatively affected. It's actually just the action itself that the adult does. So, if an adult for example were say to a child, "You're a sinner and you've made God angry," that's an example of spurning. If you say to a child, "If you don't obey me exactly, you've sinned by doing something bad and you're going to go to hell," that's an example of terrorizing.
Jonathan Singer: So, what are some examples of religiously motivated sexual abuse and medical neglect?
Janet Heimlich: Sure. When it comes to religious child sexual abuse, it's most often not of a religious belief that directly impacts, you know, the perpetrator's actions. There have been some fringy groups, some that are not all that small that actually do believe that there needs to be sex between adults and children as part of their salvation-type doctrines and that kind of thing. But for the most part, religions do not say, you know, we should be sexually abusing children. We should be having sexual relations between adults and children. However, there are other religious beliefs that do contribute to that and that is mainly the power and balance that happens between perpetrator and victim as well as the views of just the role of religious authorities in a religious community and that really is what I see as the most problematic belief that we don't just look up to a religious authority, that we're supposed to revere and worship that person and to the point where our critical thinking is so out the window that, you know, we trust them to be alone with a child without doing background checks without really checking out this person.
But a lot of that does come from the parental mindset that if it's someone with a religious authority and that includes in the home as well where the religious authority usually the father is that their authority is not questioned and the victim is completely helpless if that kind of sexual abuse starts happening. As far as medical neglect, I chose to have the neglect section focus on medical neglect. I do talk about other forms of religiously-based neglect. In fact, I'll just throw one at you that comes from a current event. Most people are not aware of Harold Camping's false prediction about the end of the world and that kind of thing and I think a lot of people, the media included were kind of chuckling about how that might be impacting or what causes people to have those kinds of beliefs and making a joke about it. But I–
Jonathan Singer: And you're talking about Harold Camping, the American Christian radio broadcaster that wrongly predicted the end of the world on, was it May 21st, 2011?
Janet Heimlich: Yes, that's right, around that time. And he got just huge media play. I mean, this was a national story - even an international story. I noticed though that while some, there were some tragic circumstances that were covered by the media, for example, families just giving up every penny they had because they believed that they wouldn't need it in the afterlife. People were really looking at how that kind of prediction affects children. So, I wrote a blog called "How End Times Beliefs Affect Children." And what I just wish was that there was more attention paid to, well, how does a family giving up everything they own and becoming destitute affect their children? How are their children affected when the parents realize that all, their entire faith system, you know, has been turned on its head?
That to me is an example of religious neglect. But in terms of what I really felt that's found on the book, yes as you said medical neglect, I feel like that particular form of maltreatment is extremely serious and more widespread than people think it is. I think that much of the public is aware of this problem because there have been some high profile child death cases in the media but in only rare occasions do they end up with a child dying. It can lead to a child just not getting appropriate dental care, having some sickness that just ends up getting worse and worse and worse and can lead to permanent physical problems or even mental problems.
Jonathan Singer: When I think about a child getting sicker and sicker, you know, being in pain and maybe this is because I'm a parent. I'm remembering times when my daughter had an ear infection and was crying and holding her ear like in those times I want to do everything I can to stop the pain. I can't imagine withholding medical intervention. Now, I mean I get that you said earlier that, you know, parents in these authoritarian religious communities are middle managers, right and that they're constantly having to weigh the needs of the community with the needs of their child, I just can't imagine though what do we do to a parent or what do we take for a parent to decide to do something that would hurt their kid?
Janet Heimlich: I think I do want to just add that when it comes to the mindset of parents that, for example, deny their children medical care because of their religious beliefs, they too believe that they are doing everything that they should be doing as a parent to pray over their child because they feel that the best way that they can serve their child is to do whatever it takes to try to reach God and to have a deity make their child better and they're not going to call the doctor because they may have all sorts of negative ideas about medical care, you know, being evil for example or they just don't trust it. So, you have that mindset going on too.
Jonathan Singer: Right. That's fair enough and you know you're intentional in your book about pointing to this idea of authoritarianism not religiosity that's problematic. And this brings me to something that you wrote about in your book that I think could be really useful and really practical for service providers who are, you know, curious about their client's involvement in religious authoritarian communities. You wrote a series of questions that parents can ask themselves about their religious community that really gets at this question of how authoritarian is it? And even though you didn't write these questions for service providers, I could easily imagine replacing the "I" with "you" and turning the questions into a really nice piece of an interview. Could you read some of those questions?
Janet Heimlich: Sure, no problem. Some of the questions include: Do I raise my child according to strict guidelines or beliefs held by my faith community? Would I be rebuked or treated coldly if I did not follow those norms including enforcing strict discipline in the home and using physical punishment in ways that make me feel uneasy? Do my faith leaders tell us God wants us to spank our kids? Are children in my place of worship treated respectfully even when they misbehave or are they made to feel shameful? If parents or children need help managing their lives, does my place of worship offer suggestions for mental health services or simply tell them to talk to a member of the clergy, pray harder or undergo an exorcism?
Jonathan Singer: Right. And I just feel like I need to say for the record that these aren't questions that the child welfare worker would ask in order to make a determination of child abuse or neglect. These are just questions that can tap into the beliefs or doctrine of someone's religious community and it is a conversation starter.
Janet Heimlich: Right. I'm not saying that as a parent says, "Well yeah, my pastor said that God says we should spank our kids," and that right there means, you know, kids have to be removed from the homes. I'm not saying that at all but there might be a little flag that goes up to say, "Well, maybe there are some authoritarian influences going on here that could possibly be detrimental to the children."
Jonathan Singer: Yeah, and you have a couple of questions that go beyond assessing authoritarian religious communities and move into religiously motivated child abuse. Could you read those?
Janet Heimlich: Sure. If I were to find out that my child was abused by a member of my faith community or if I had strong suspicions that such abuse had taken place, would I feel comfortable reporting that abuse to outside authorities? Or, would I feel obligated to first contact faith leaders and follow their instruction? If I did speak to faith leaders first, would they likely advise me to report the allegations to law enforcement or child protective services or to deal with the problem within the church?
Jonathan Singer: Yeah. And clearly if I had a client who answer that their religious community would discourage reporting suspected abuse or neglect, then I would have a good topic for my next supervision session among other things. Now, one of the things I really liked about your book is that it's not written for social workers and so you talked broadly about what people can do to address religiously motivated child maltreatment or religious child maltreatment and for me it's always nice reading books not directed towards social workers because there are just certain topics that social work text cover all the time and reading your book was a really nice way of moving outside of that. So, what are some things that you found that people are doing or should be doing to address religious child maltreatment?
Janet Heimlich: Generally speaking above and beyond all, it's important for Americans to try to look at religious influences as objectively as possible. I believe that too many people have a bias where they have a really hard time accepting that while religion can bring great comfort and nurturing to children, it can also go the other way and I've seen some cases where law enforcements, social workers didn't really take the case seriously because there was faith involved. If the parents were taking some action that they really believed was according to their religious customs, individuals have looked the other way or the laws looked the other way or courts have looked the other way. Many types of abuses I see as being accepted. Of course, not the religious ones but that they have been more acceptable in our society just because there is some kind of religious justification to it.
Jonathan Singer: And in your book, you point out that looking the other way is often allowed under the law called – what's it – faith healing related religious exemptions and you call for the repeal of these laws?
Janet Heimlich: Right, that's a perfect example and these laws, these religious exemption laws were largely put in place across the country, State by State as a result of the lobbying by prominent Christian science officials and now we're seeing that not only have those laws, you know, caused problems and cases just never even getting to the courts but it's – are slowly but surely repealing these laws and Oregon is one State that just stands poised right now to get rid of its exemption. That particular State is one that has seen severe problems with religious child medical neglect among one religious community called the Followers of Christ and their graveyard is just full of young people who have died sometimes very often as toddlers, babies or who died in childbirth or women and child in childbirth because their belief system is so strong towards using faith healing as opposed to seeking any kind of medical care.
Jonathan Singer: So, I think this is a really important point to clarify. So, you're saying that there are laws on the books that create two different standards for abuse and neglect. Laws that allow people to engage in medical neglect, rather to not seek treatment for their child because of their religious beliefs and because they can say, "Well, my religious belief say I don't have to seek medical attention." They're not held to the same laws that I would be held to if I didn't have some sort of religious doctrine that guided my choice. Did I get that right?
Janet Heimlich: Absolutely and another example would be vaccinations. I'm not saying that parents shouldn't have the right to decide whether or not their children get vaccinated but there have been problems wherein a religious community that is staunchly against vaccination, they'll just, you know, make it an across-the-board decision that no one gets vaccinated without really looking at the research, not even really becoming familiar with the benefits of vaccination and as a result, children have died even from diseases that, you know, we don't even hear about anymore. There had been outbreaks of polio, for example. So, you know, this is – it's important to allow some exemptions in the law but at the same time if there's not enough education where religious communities learn about medical advances and things like that and the possible detriments of not seeking medical care or vaccinating their children then you're going to have more and more these kinds of cases.
Jonathan Singer: And another point you made in your book and I think has particularly remained to service providers is that these types of laws discourage folks who are religious from calling the doctor or 911 and it encourages mandated reporters to not report things that they suspect are abusive or neglectful. That's a huge problem because then that cuts out an entire group of professionals whose job it is to protect kids.
Janet Heimlich: Yeah. I strongly agree with that in terms of the first point, it is without question in my view that if you have some sort of law that gives prosecutorial immunity to a parent for not delivering medical care to their child under certain circumstances then you're going to see more of those kinds of cases. I think that the law has to be careful sometimes and look at things on a case-by-case basis, but to just have this blanket immunity where as long as someone is practicing their faith by using faith healing and it's part of a religious, a well-known religious institution. There are States that allow that and so you're going to see more cases there. In terms of the reporting, that to me is the most serious problem and the most universal problem when it comes to these cases and I want to say, too, that even though isolated groups are by far the most likely to resist reporting to outside authorities, you've seen a resistance to report child abuse cases.
Even in the larger "mainstream" institutions, the pope, for example, has never once said that bishops and priests should report child maltreatment as long as there's a credible case that they should automatically do that. Instead, there have been instructions that they send those cases up to the high ranks of the Vatican or that they report if they're legally required to in their local jurisdiction. Well, the problem there is that there are all sorts of loopholes in State and local laws that allow clergy to avoid reporting abuses. I mean, there have been cases where a priest will "confess' to a bishop that he molested a child and the bishop could say, "Well, I'm not going to report that because that falls under the area of confession and since you know, and I have to protect that person's privacy". Meanwhile, the abuse could continue on and so this failure to report is a serious problem in all sorts of religious communities.
Jonathan Singer: So you'd advocate for clergy to be required to report suspected or known abuse or neglect in the same way that doctors, teachers, nurses, social workers and others are mandated to do?
Janet Heimlich: I do.
Jonathan Singer: Another thing that you talked about is extending or eliminating statutes of limitation for sexual abuse lawsuits. Can you talk about why that would be important for religious child maltreatment or child sexual abuse that involves religious communities or institutions?
Janet Heimlich: Sure. I do think these statutes of limitations when they offer this relatively narrow window where someone can raise a case in the courts or file a lawsuit affect many, many victims of sexual abuse even if religion is not involved but when you have powerful religious organizations and their teams of lawyers that can delay cases and have them just stretch out to the point where the statute of limitation is used up particularly in States that, you know, just have a short period of time from when the alleged victim is no longer a minor then you have those victims that are really at a loss and they can go to a lawyer and say "This happened to me. I want to sue," and they can be told that there's just no way because we don't have the law on our side and then that person is completely out of luck.
Jonathan Singer: Well, on that really discouraging note, Janet I want to thank you so much for talking with us today on this Social Work Podcast about religious child maltreatment, a subject that as you have pointed out in your writings is not something that social work or really anybody talks much about and I thought your book was really engaging, a really clear and easy read and something that I think that social workers would really get a lot out of reading, maybe doing a book group about and you have a really nice companion website either breakingtheirwill.com or religiouschildmaltreatment.com, I noticed that Google searches went to the same website when you put in both those topics. And you have educational resources. You also write a blog where you talk about current events such as the Harold Camping issue and so that's a place where folks can stay up-to-date on your thoughts on religiously motivated child abuse and neglect in the news. So, before we go, do you have any last words for social workers or other mental health professionals?
Janet Heimlich: I just encourage those who are out there in the field and doing all this great work and can share their personal experiences of having come across these kinds of problems. It would be great to hear from you by either emailing me through my website or commenting on the blogs so that others can learn from you. I think that would be just really helpful to keep the conversation moving forward.
Jonathan Singer: That's great. Well, Janet thanks so much for taking the time out to talk with us today.
Janet Heimlich: Thank you so much for having me.
~ End ~
References and Resources
Heimlich, J. (2011). Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
Horwath, J., & Lees, J. (2010). Assessing the influence of religious beliefs and practices on parenting capacity: The challenges for social work practitioners. British Journal of Social Work, 40(1): 82-99 doi:10.1093/bjsw/bcn116
Kvarfordt, C. K., & Sheridan, M. J. (2007). The role of religion and spirituality in working with children and adolescents. Journal of Religion & Spirituality in Social Work, 26(3), 1-23. doi:10.1300/J377v26n03_01.
Kvarfordt, C. L. (2010). Spiritual abuse and neglect of youth: Reconceptualizing what is known through an investigation of practitioners' experiences. Journal of Religion & Spirituality in Social Work, 29(2), 143-164. doi:10.1080/15426431003708287
Prior, M. K., & Quinn, A. S. (2010): The relationship between childhood emotional neglect and adult spirituality: An exploratory study. Journal of Religion & Spirituality in Social Work, 29(4), 277-299. doi:10.1080/15426432.2010.518816
Singer, M. T. (2003). Cults in our midst: The continuing fight against their hidden menace. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
APA (6th ed) citation for this podcast:
Singer, J. B. (Host). (2012, February 27). Religious Child Maltreatment: Interview with Janet Heimlich [Episode 71]. Social Work Podcast. Podcast retrieved Month Day, Year, from http://socialworkpodcast.com/2012/02/religious-child-maltreatment-interview.html