Walt Disney’s 2002 movie “Lilo & Stitch” (a Hawaii-inspired story) turned the local household word for family – ohana – into an international household word overnight. “Ohana” became instantly popular not only because it was a cool, new vocabulary word for those who had never heard it before but because of what the word means and stands for.
Every society since the beginning of time has placed significant value on the concept of family, exalting it to a place of prominence that’s revered by all. Just mention the word “family” and whatever the topic, its importance has just increased tenfold – ie: an emergency vs. a family emergency; a death vs. a death in the family; attending a wedding vs. attending a family wedding – so it’s no wonder that we place such a high emphasis on correcting family problems.
In and of itself, abuse isn’t strong enough to break down and destroy a family but escaping an abusive relationship is. The reason for that is quite simple: because the victim fleeing the abuse is breaking the integrity of the family boundaries by breaking the silence.
Think of it this way: the family is like a ship on the water – all we see of the ship is what’s above the surface of the water, right? Unless you went scuba diving to examine the ship’s structure underneath, you really wouldn’t know what condition the ship’s really in so you could be looking at a million dollar luxury liner but not know that its hull is rusting out underneath, barely keeping the ship afloat. Just because it appears beautiful on the surface doesn’t mean it’s structurally sound and the same holds true for families.
Secrecy and collusion (a silent agreement or alignment between two or more people) in the context of abuse are both horrifically toxic things. Extremely harmful and damaging, they have an unhealthy “sticky” quality to them that’s strong enough to hold abuse, an abusive relationship or a family where abuse is taking place together.
Going back to the ship analogy, if you were a diver examining the rotting hull of a beautiful luxury liner, you’d be scratching your head going “This ship should be sinking – what’s holding it together?” The answer would be collusion.
Ideally, we’d like to fix the hull of the ship before it deteriorates any further and keep the ship afloat which is the function of counseling, therapy and Child Protective Services BUT here’s where the curveball comes in: when you have a victim escaping abuse, it’s like a big hole’s been blown into the hull of the ship. An event of that nature should warrant the ship’s return to dock for repair but in more instances then not, the ship’ll attempt its own damage control (keep “family buisness” within the family) while trying to remain afloat so as not to tarnish the luxury liner image everyone sees.
Last week at the DV Summit guest speaker, Theresa Costello, Director of the National Resource Center for Child Protective Services http://nrccps.org/ spoke about the CPS practice model values. The first two values concern child centeredness and family focus stemming from the following principles:
- Children are entitled to live in a safe and permanent home and need families to be successful.
- Families have the right and responsibility to raise their children.
Indeed, the second principle is assured in The Constitution and has been affirmed many times over by federal and state courts http://familyrights.us/bin/Constitutional_Rights_Parents.htm such as in the Nunez by Nunez v. City of San Diego, 114 F3d 935 (9th Cir. 1997) case that asserted a “Parents right to rear children without undue governmental interference is a fundamental component of due process” but now consider: how does this apply to a family that’s been blown apart by an escaping/escaped abuse victim-survivor?
In a “normal” intact family (where abuse may or may not be taking place) “the family” is easily identifiable and defined; there is a head of household or a primary husband-wife like relationship and children with extended family members defined by shared bloodlines. Stresses and strife are typically contained within the family unit unless outside intervention is imposed. If the outside intervention is CPS, they proceed from the CPS practice model values that are based upon the paradigm (the model) of a “normal” intact family.
“Victim fleeing abuse” or “successfully escaped abuse survivor” are NOT encompassed in the definition or scope of a “normal” intact family nor are these critically important designations factored into account anywhere in the CPS service plan or, most crucially, at the outset of a case.
Why are these DV status factors or designations important? Take, for example, one of the very first steps in CPS intervention: Initiates family finding and search for relatives.
When a DV victim is fleeing (escaping) an abusive relationship, her life turns into a game of “Hide & Seek” – she’s frantically trying to hide and he’s desperately trying to seek. Sometimes, a DV victim’s Safety Plan may include the necessity of cutting off all ties with family and friends because the abuser will turn to her known supporters and family members in an attempt to elicit sympathy and information about her from them.
Expressing panic and heartbreak as a father for the wellbeing of his children while confessing embarrassingly “personal details” of his tumultuous relationship with his victim (that usually revolve around the themes of HER mental instability or HER infidelities in order to explain her sudden and irrational departure – the “nut or slut” excuse) the abuser is easily able to win over those who are blind to an abuser’s tactics. (As a young therapist, I easily fell for this because the abuser was always the more engaging and charismatic whereas the victim-survivor not only appeared “a mess” but was resistant, evasive, mistrustful and sometimes hostile towards the “help” I was offering.)
Manipulating her supporters to assist him is an abuser’s crowning achievement and it also looks good for him in court proceedings; he knows this which why abusers will spend so much time, energy and effort towards winning over her allies or finding supporters in his quest to “co-parent” or work “collaboratively/cooperatively” with her. CPS’s “family finding and search for relatives” initiative (inadvertently) puts victim-survivors and their children directly at-risk and in harm’s way by opening or re-opening a door that was closed shut by DV service efforts.
So in the context of DV, what would “family” look like?
- Her parents may very well support him;
- The children (who are fully cognizant of what he’s capable of) may behave like perfect little angels when with him while acting beyond their mom’s control with overt hostility and disrespect towards her (mirroring the abuser’s behavior they’ve witnessed);
- His friends, relatives and colleagues (with absolutely no experience of being in her shoes) will swear to seeing none of the behavior the victim describes yet will gladly testify to his “good character”;
- Due to the isolative and shaming nature of DV, her friends, relatives and colleagues will either not know her well enough (anymore) to make any comment (so the DV will be news to them) or they’ll have known about the DV but will have negative things to say about her because she: was stupid enough to stay, made her bed/choice, deserves what she got, etc.
All of us agree that if you’re in an abusive situation, you need to get out but doing so will ruin and destroy the “normal” intact family we all hold as sacred and if a survivor has successfully escaped with her children, she needs to be supported and protected as such. Before any of us in any capacity go rushing in to do what’s in “the children’s best interests” or to “preserve the family” we need to precisely define what “family” is to ensure that we don’t aid an abuser and take a survivor (and her children) and turn them back into victims.