My Public Hearing Testimony About OCS

 Representative Tammie Wilson from North Pole held OCS Public Testimony Hearings at multiple locations around the state, after a grand jury declined to investigate and turned over their findings to the Citizen’s Review Panel and the Ombudsman’s Office. The hearings were opportunities for those “not satisfied with the current state of the Office of Children’s Services”.  Rep. Wilson has accused OCS of “legal kidnapping”.

As CPS workers, we are either accused of stepping on parents’ rights and kidnapping children who are perfectly safe or we don’t do nearly enough and leave children in grave danger in their homes. I decided to attend the hearing and below is what I said. I hoped it would be an encouragement to my fellow workers and a motivator to get the services that will actually help Alaska to be a safer state for children. Below is what I said:

My name is Jessica Veldstra and I am speaking as a private citizen. The opinions below are mine alone and do not represent  the viewpoint of the Office of Children’s Services.

 

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The Powerful Men of Evangelicalism Suddenly Care about Sexual Abuse of Children? Prove it.

*All opinions are my own and in no way represent those of my employer.

For years now, activist bloggers, including the Wartburg Watch, Boz Tchividian of G.R.A.C.E., and I have posted again and again about the rampant sex abuse of children in churches and church leaders horrific responses to sexual abuse of children in their congregation.

See these posts for examples:

Here are some of my posts that I have written on the topic:

However there is little evidence that the powerful in the church (and shouldn’t that phrase be an oxymoron?) take sex abuse of minors seriously. In fact, many of the most heard voices in the Evangelical community continue to cover sex abuse and even make jokes about the cover-ups. Recently, while SNAP (Survivor Network of those Abused by Priests) protested CJ Mahaney’s inclusion as a speaker in the 2016 Together for the Gospel Conference , Al Mohler, the head of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and regarded as one of Evangelicalism’s most influential people, took the podium and used the opportunity to make a joke at the victim’s expense. He stated “I told C.J. that in getting ready to introduce him I decided I would Google to see if there was anything on the Internet about him.”, referring to the activism online calling out Mahaney for years of covering up sex abuse. There are far too many  cases to list here of powerful men in Evangelicalism who have attempted to cover up the crime of child sex abuse or rape or who have sided with the perpetrator showing little to no concern with the victim, but here are just a few:

  1. CJ Mahaney’s cover up of the widespread sexual abuse of numerous minors
  2. Doug Wilson’s victim blaming and siding with a child rapist and presiding over the marriage of a known pedophile to a church member and asked for leniency after the conviction of the pedophile and then presided over the pedophile’s marriage to a church member.
  3. Ken Ramey’s insistence that a mother of a developmentally delayed youth who had been raped so severely he required medical attention keep quiet about the situation and to submit to a church mediated reconciliation process and put her under discipline when she refused. See  sources here and here and here. (This has been updated for accuracy. The child is not developmentally disabled but is delayed and the mother had already contacted authorities/medical attention by the time they met with Ken Ramsey as opposed to him requiring her not to call).

In fact the number one reason that churches end up in court is because of sexual abuse of a child. (Credit Church Law and Tax)

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However despite all their covering of their own behinds, patting each others backs and  recklessly disregarding victims to the point of making jokes at their expense, suddenly all these people seem to care about is the SAFETY of CHILDREN from sexual assault. I should be happy about this right? Isn’t that what I have been asking them to care about all along? Except the way they are going to protect children is to not allow transgender people to use the bathroom of their choosing.

Seriously.

Although transgender people, especially transgender women, were far more likely to be victimized than the general population, at a rate of as high of 66% being victims of sexual assault in their lifetimes, they feel that further putting transgender people in danger will help to make children somehow safer. They used the argument while transgender people wouldn’t be perpetrating the abuse, cisgender males would take advantage of dressing like women to perpetrate on women and children in women’s bathrooms. This point was made especially clear with Libby Ann’s blog Conservative Rhetoric and Transgender Bathroom Battles. (As a side note the emphasis is on a fear of transgender females rather than transgender males, who would, under the South Carolina law would be forced to use the women’s restroom. Most likely this is due to the predominate patriarchal culture’s belief that a male having feminine traits is horrible while a female having male traits is accepted, since male traits are seen as superior or naturally desirable).It is especially ironic that many in the far right, who traditionally believe in less government control are asking for more laws and more government control in regards to this issue. For years, transgender people have been using bathrooms that correlate with their gender and nothing happened. Suddenly, in the far right there is an outcry for states to make new laws, even though videotaping, spying, and any form of sex abuse in a bathroom is already against the law. It seems those in the far right want the government out of their private business unless it’s someone else’s business and then it’s ok, especially if they are a minority. Since when does one have to carry a birth certificate to go pee? And what if one is born with genitals that are not easily classified as either male or female, which is fairly common. For instance, Nate Sparks points out that the rate of people who are born intersex is more common than being born with red hair.

This clearly isn’t about protecting children. It’s just not. It’s about fear of other people and about those in power (READ: white, cis, Christian men) marginalizing other people even more. The reality is, is while it does rarely occur, statistically very few child sexual assaults are committed by strangers. At least ninety percent of perpetrators of sexual abuse are known to the child and I suspect the number is much higher than that, due to the far greater likelihood that a child would report against a stranger rather than someone he or she knew and who had been actively grooming them. I have worked in child protection for eight and a half years. Our office receives around 50-100 reports of suspected child abuse and neglect every month and I can’t remember even one of them being perpetrated by a stranger in a bathroom. Most sexual abuse is perpetrated in the child’s home, school or church. In fact, the very cultures that these powerful men of Evangelicalism create, makes it more likely that children will be sexually abuse. For instance, according to the CDC it is more likely that sexual abuse of children will take place in environments with hostility towards women, adherence to traditional gender role norms and hyper-masculinity.  The people we should be concerned about are people that the child knows and trusts such as relatives, teachers, neighbors, and pastors.
So what can people actually do to help?

  • Teach children body autonomy. Make sure the child knows that their body is theirs and no one else. Allow your children to say no to physical touch starting from a very young age.  See some really great tips in starting to teach this are found in 5 Phrases That Can Help Protect Your Child from Sexual Abuse and starting conversations in When Kristoff asks Anna for Consent in Frozen
  • Listen and believe victims. I can’t stress this enough. Our entire culture is primed to believe adults over children especially when it comes to sexual assault and most often churches and pastors take the side of the perpetrator rather than the victim.
  • Report to proper authority immediately. This includes the police and CPS. Do not let this be handled “in-house” in churches. Sexual abuse of a child is a crime  not just a sin. And in many places, not reporting it is also a crime.
  • Stop victim blaming. Sexual abuse of children is 100% the perpetrators fault. Full stop. No matter what the victim was doing, wearing, or drinking. If there is no consent (and there can’t be with children due to their age) it’s rape.
  • When there is doubt, over protect. Even if the accused is innocent, there is absolutely no harm in putting additional safe guards in place. There is no reason for anyone who has been accused of sexual assault to be alone with a child at any time, even if that person is thought to be innocent. Most people who are not predators actively try to make sure they aren’t put in a position where they are alone with a child. If someone tries to isolate children, then is defensive of their position, the community should be on high alert and should never allow that person alone or in a position of power over children.

If you really want to stop sexual abuse, start the conversations at the top, call out those who are protecting perpetrators or covering up abuse, call for longer sentences, over protect, believe victims and teach consent and body autonomy. However marginalizing transgender people and making it more unsafe for them in a public restroom is not in away safeguarding children. It’s just another way the powerful have twisted information to make it seem like they care, when they are actually just using it as an excuse to discriminate.

 

 

 

 

 

The First Step To Orphan Care is Family Preservation

November is Adoption Month and many churches remember Orphan Sunday (this year it was November 8) during the month. In the Old Testament, God is often described as a father and defender of the fatherless and many commandments ensure justice and care for those who do not have parents, such as Isaiah 1:17 which states “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”  In the New Testament, James states, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”(1:27)

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There is not many things closer to my heart than foster care and adoption and this month, I will be doing posts on both of those topics in honor of Adoption month, however the very first thing we can do as Christians is prevent children from becoming orphans, whether legally or by poverty.

Most children that are adopted out of foster care in the United States are not true orphans; one or both of their parents are generally still alive. However, because of the parent’s inability to care for the children due to a variety of reasons such as substance abuse, mental health issues, poverty, developmental disabilities, and domestic violence, they are unable to safely care for their children. Many of these problems are generational and parents have not been safely parented themselves as children, so have no idea how to be a safe, healthy parent.

Internationally, many children are true orphans due to preventable diseases, lack of clean water or food, AIDSwars, and women dying in childbirth. Many more parents internationally feel they cannot care for their children due to extreme poverty, lack of resources, and cultural concerns.

As a church, we have the resources and the command to preserve families by providing the care both locally and internationally to prevent parents from having their children removed or from being forced to give them up for adoption because of the lack of resources.

Here are specific ways the church can help prevent children from becoming either legal or true orphans. Locally, Christians can provide a space for NA/AA meetings, reach out to people who are struggling with addictions, create spaces where it is safe to ask for professional help for mental illness, speaking positively about necessary psychotropic medications, help people with transportation to and from mental health and substance abuse treatment appointments, provide food and volunteer at food banks and pantries, volunteer to teach parenting (ABC Pregnancy Care Center has a peer parenting program), come alongside a young mother or father and mentor them regarding healthy child care, create a space where non-violent parenting is taught, validate father’s raising children, teach child development, teach budgeting skills, teach youth bystander skills to prevent rape and domestic violence, teach employment skills, teach sexual education including topics such as consent and contraceptive use, offer free contraceptives, offer affordable child care, teach that domestic violence is not to be tolerated, offer or support a safe space for victims of domestic violence to stay with their children, pet sitting for victims of domestic violence (often abusers will threaten children and animals of the victim and shelters often don’t accept animals), offer healthy relationship classes and marriage counseling, allow a parent with a developmental disability and their child/ren to reside with your family to care for both the parent and the child, and create a homeless shelter or housing network.

Internationally, the church can provide communities with wells for access to clean water, sustainable horticultural skills for families to grow and raise food; micro loans with financial education for families to start small businesses; hygiene, nutrition and basic health training; disease prevention; educating girls and women; providing vaccinations; providing  quality prenatal and childbirth health care including training local midwives; providing access contraceptive; providing sexual education including topics of consent and contraceptive use; prevent child marriages; and education to men to prevent domestic violence and rape.

Some of these these things are pretty huge but some are fairly simple and wouldn’t cost much in the amount of time or money. If the church works to prevent children from becoming orphans, more families could safely and healthily care for their own children. There would be less trauma to children and less broken hearts of parents and there would be more resources and families to adopt true orphans. We could be doing so much more to create healthy families and communities. Until we get there, we will have many legal orphans that need homes. I will be discussing that next week.

What are other specific ways the church could prevent children from becoming orphans?

Sexual Assault of a Child is Not an Affair

Yesterday, I was horrified when the Radio Kenai announcer Catie Quinn stated that Jeremy T. Anderson was appearing in court “for having an affair” with a fifteen year old student.

An affair is defined by Merriam-Webster as ” a romantic or passionate attachment typically of limited duration” with synonyms of “amour, fling, love, love affair, and romance”.

The definition of rape is “Unlawful sexual activity and usually sexual intercourse carried out forcibly or under threat of injury against the will, usually of a female or with a person who is beneath a certain age or incapable of valid consent” with synonyms being “assault, force, outrage, ravish, and violate”

When I looked at their site today, I couldn’t find the exact clip that I heard yesterday, however even in Radio Kenai’s written articles, such as Anderson Trial Set For January by Ashley Smith , she repeatedly refers to the rape of a child as an “affair” and a “relationship”. For example they state,  “The affair allegedly began in December of 2013 and continued through early May.” Yes, the fifteen year old reported to another teacher that she had been having an “affair” but a fifteen year old does not have the ability to consent to sex, especially sex with a teacher and, most likely, the teacher had been using the language of an “affair” when he groomed her. That’s what sex offenders do. They minimize and place blame on their victims.

A teacher sexually assaulting an underage student is not an “affair” or a “relationship”. It is rape. For the press to describe it as an affair/relationship is irresponsible as implies consent on the child’s part which she cannot give both as she is underage and the teacher is in a position of authority over her and it minimizes the crime of sexual assault committed by the teacher.

For further reading please see  Why Pastors Should Not Date their Congregants: My Story.

Different

Trigger warning: discussion of domestic violence, child abuse, and rape.

And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God. Romans 12:2 KJV

 Just in case you have been out of country, live under a rock, or your eyes glaze over and you become momentarily deaf every time you see a football uniform on the TV (like I do), the foot ball world has been recently rocked by stories of family abuse in the last several weeks. A video appeared of Ray Rice knocking out his then fiancé in an elevator and charges were filed against Adrian Peterson for leaving bleeding welts all over his four year old boy’s body.

Some of the social media reaction was predictably abysmal, rife with victim blaming and people defending “spanking”. Many people asked why Rice’s fiancé later married him and in reaction, the twitter hashtag #whyistayed began to trend, with domestic violence victims giving reasons to why they stayed as long as they did in a violent relationship. The reasons ranged from knowing the most dangerous time for a person is when they leave a DV relationship to the abuser threatening their children or animals to the abuser socially isolating them so they felt they had nowhere to go. However, as Boz Tchividjian of G.R.A.C.E. addresses in #whyistayed: Chruches Support Spousal Abuse, many of the reasons had to do with the response of the church or pastors to the abuse. Many pastors told the victim to endure to be a good witness or that God hates divorce or that they should be more submissive.

When I read the responses, I was not surprised but I thought the answer was obvious. These churches should council domestic violence victims to call authorities, refer them to a shelter, and encourage them to leave. Something about this response troubled me. I realized that it was the exact response most “secular” people would give an abuse victim. Was my response “conforming to the world”?

With more progressive Christians, a common criticism is that we have conformed to the world and look no different than the secular population. After all, it is easy to feel different as a Fundamentalist or conservative Evangelical. While the “rules” that are followed vary from church to church and person to person, often make differences are external, such as women not cutting their hair and only wearing skirts and men wearing polos and khaki slacks, not drinking alcohol, not watching R rated movies, not swearing, exclusively homeschooling, and not listening to secular music. When I was in a more conservative Evangelical environment, I often felt different. I hadn’t listened to that new album all my “public school friends” were listening to and I couldn’t bring myself to say a swear word, even when I stubbed my toe.

Now, I look at those things as legalism, simply following rules. However, what makes me different than the rest of the world? What is my response to the pastor  whose version of not conforming to the world is to encouraging a wife to stay with her abusive husband so she can be a good witness, or those who condone child abuse as scriptural, or those who say that God hates gay people?

It hit me then that our call in the face of abuse is not to conform to the world by handing a domestic violence victim a card to the shelter or encouraging her to leave him to leave his abusive spouse. I should not conform to the world by only reporting child abuse if I happen to see it. I should not conform to the world by voting for leaders who will provide more welfare for the poor. I should not conform to the world by just putting a Facebook profile picture confirming I believe in marriage equality.

We should be running the domestic violence shelters.

We should be preaching from the pulpits against domestic violence and child abuse.

We should be actively teaching our children respect and non-violence in relationships.

We should be feeding the poor and running food banks and soup kitchens.

We should be foster parents for abused and neglected children.

We should be meeting the needs of women who are unsure how they are going to provide for their unborn child.

We should be standing in support of the victims of sexual abuse in court.

We should be foster parents for the enormous amount of LGBTQ youth who are homeless because their parents kicked them out.

We should holding the AA and NA and Al-anon groups in our church basements.

We should be advocates and running hotlines for victims of sexual assault.

We should be different. We should not be conforming to apathy or to doing as little as possible.

We should be the ones on the front lines, combating poverty, abuse, racism, homophobia and sexism. We are the church. We are called to be the light and the salt of the world.

Shocked!

Yesterday, I made a shocked exclamation of dismay while reading  a blog by Doug Wilson.

When my roommate asked me if I was still shocked by people believing things like he wrote, I realized that I am often shocked.

I am shocked when Douglas Wilson argued in his blog that he should be able to use his discretion about whether or not to report a sex crime against a child to CPS or the police due to the government supports sex education in schools so cannot be trusted to fairly investigate sex offenses.

I am shocked when Wilson closes his argument with the sentence “I am a pastor and I cover things up for a living”.

I am shocked when a commenter on the blog said statutory rape shouldn’t be a crime because it wasn’t a crime in the Bible.

I was shocked last week that people still follow and defend Mark Driscoll after his incredibly hateful, misogynist, homophobic online comments were published last week.

I am shocked that the response to the Mars Hill congregation regarding protesters the outside the church calling to “Question Mark” wasn’t more transparency but rather an admonishment to “trust us”.

I am shocked that seemingly reasonable people still defend abuse handbooks like “To Train Up a Child” and “Created to be His Help Meet” by Debi and Michael Pearl.

I am shocked that women who have a voice due to feminism,  which is defined as the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men,actually hold signs proclaiming why they don’t need because “They want to be a home maker” as if being a homemaker somehow conflicts with feminism.

I am shocked when someone “de-friended” me because I put an anti-rape poster on social media because I am “being a victim” when I am speaking for up for the 59% of Alaskan women who have experienced domestic or sexual violence.

I think part of my shock is due to being surrounded by people who are vocal in standing up against any abuse or sexism. For instance, my husband began to use “Driscoll” synonymous with “coward” or “weak” in response to Driscoll’s  use of “pussified” to describe men who are homemakers. I also read a lot of blogs by organizations fighting abuse and discrimination such as G.R.A.C.E. and the Gay Christian Network.

While I do get cynical a lot, shock is the impetus for continuing to speak out. Shock gives me the adrenaline rush that makes me overcome my fear and continue to write. It is that extra push that nudges me to get over the apathy and belief that “everyone knows this stuff” that I am writing. So while abuse and evil still exist in the world, I hope I never stop being shocked.

Why Pastors Should Not Date Their Congregants: My Story

 

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Trigger warning: Discussion of spiritual and sexual abuse

On June 9th, Christianity Today published a story by a youth pastor who had become a sex offender. Presented as a cautionary tale to pastors not to let pride screw up your ministry, instead this was a sob story chock full of victim blaming, wife blaming, oh feel so sorry for me, the poor sex offender. He presented the child he sexually abused as complicit in his “affair”. The whole thing was egregious and created a firestorm of comments and a huge movement of people demanding that they take the post down. They did five days later and issued a sincere apology.

On June 6th, the Kenai Clarion reported that a Nikiski school teacher had repeatedly raped and sexually abused his female student over the last year and had an ongoing “relationship” with her.

On May 27th, Teresa Pecinovsky wrote a guest blog post on Rachel Held Evan’s I Will Not Be Silent Anymore in response to the #yesallwomen campaign  site about a professor and minister who had repeatedly contacted her, slowly chipping away at her defenses until he sent her a sexually explicit text. She then was sick with guilt wondering what she had done.

This spring has brought up a lot of emotions and memories for me due to the blog posts and headlines about young females being abused by teachers and ministers. Pecinovsky’s story hit home the hardest for me because it was the most similar to my story, a person attempting an romantic relationship with someone who is under their authority. It was also similar because we both were lucky enough to be able to stop the relationship before it was physically sexual but was still traumatic.

I was 13 when my 31 year old teacher began singling me out for special attention. I went to a small Christian school with about a hundred children K-12 and it was also a nondenominational church and community center. I easily spent more waking hours at the church/school than at home. Throughout my junior high and high school years, he would call me into his class room to discuss silly insignificant things like the color I had chosen to make my geography maps. Once, when there was a torrential rain pour after school (a rarity in our area of Alaska), I ran outside laughing and twirling as the fourteen year old child that I was. I suddenly caught a glimpse of him staring through the glass doors, frozen, with a look on his face that made me hug my arms over my baggy boy’s polo shirt I was wearing and run inside, feeling guilty and dirty. He later told me that he thought that moment of watching a young teen was one of the most seductive things he had seen.

When I was in high school, he was no longer my teacher but he was the Christian Education Director. His singling out of me intensified. I  had begun to attend the adult Sunday School class he taught because I was interested in church history. The summer between my junior and senior year of high school he cornered me and asked if I would run the projector for the summer series on the Beatitudes. I agreed, partly because I thought it would simply entail changing the slide when appropriate and partly because I had never learned to say no to an adult or to trust my feelings. Respect for authority was ingrained to my core and to say no, solely because I felt uncomfortable around him, didn’t cross my mind. In fact, I continued call him Mr. and his last name because he was an authority, an adult, and a teacher. Instead just changing the slides like he had asked, he required me to meet with him for hours each week to discuss the lesson plan. As he ushered me into his office at the church that summer and I vividly remember walking past the pastor’s door with the sign posted “Women meeting with the pastor must leave the door open or have another woman present”. He would shut the office door behind me.

Midway into the summer, I was with him in an empty church office on a Saturday and he asked me to meet at a restaurant next week. I told him I would, thinking that would be better than a closed office. As we were walking out of the office, he grabbed my upper arm so tightly that it hurt. “I want you to know that I’m asking you because I like you as a person, not because of the class.” I said “okay” and he released his grip. His statement confused me and I believe it was intentionally vague. If I had responded “Is this a date?” he could of easily shamed me by my assumption that he would want to go on a date with me, when really he was just valuing me as a person. Conversely, if I later said I assumed this was platonic, he could have said “But I made it clear that it was a date.”

On the day we discussed the “pure in heart” verses, he brought me up to “the Bluff”, a local scenic view, and relentlessly quizzed me “What does purity mean to you?” “Do you think if a guy says ‘that girl is foxy?’ is that pure?” “When does it become impure?” I remember being so incredibly miserable, cringing at every question and mumbling “I don’t know” over and over, but being careful not to cry so he didn’t have an excuse to hug me.

When the class ended,  his pursuit of me increased. I would receive letters from him in my school locker accompanied by a Hershey chocolate “hug” candy. He came to my work. He sent me flowers for Christmas.  He gave me a card, stuffed animal, and a calligraphy pen for Valentine’s Day. I finally felt I had enough evidence that he was pursuing a romantic relationship with me even though he never explicitly said so. His was intentionally vague as part of the manipulation and I was so naive that  I was ashamed because I hadn’t been brave enough to tell him no, that I was “leading him on”. I called him and told him that I did not want to meet alone with him anymore. He asked to meet me in the school cafeteria and told me that I would just need some “time to get over our age differences”. I had used up my courage in that one “no” that he refused to acknowledge. I felt guilty that part of me liked the attention of someone singling me out and calling me special and kept thinking I wasn’t being clear enough.

I asked for help from my female youth leaders, but nothing happened so eventually I became adept at avoiding him and my peers helped by creating human buffers and “emergencies” to call me away from him. Eventually in college, I was able to break all contact with him.

Alaska’s age of consent is 16 and nothing he was doing was overtly sexual so it wasn’t illegal. However, as Pecinovsky brings up, Faith Trust Institute’s ethical standards for clergy that they should not have  relationships for those who they are leading. Because this man was in a position of spiritual and educational authority over me, it was immoral and abusive.

Just like teachers, social workers, doctors, and counselors are prohibited from having romantic relationships with their students, patients or clients, pastors are also in positions of power and authority over members of their flock. In fact, the more authoritarian the church is, the more important this rule becomes. Churches which control the way the members dress, earn money, interact with their family and hold claim that they are the only “true” church have enormous power. If a person was to claim a inappropriate relationship in these churches or even “break up” with their pastor, they could fear loosing their family, income and even their salvation. For this reason, in many states, a pastor dating his or her congregant is illegal.

Just to be clear, 100% of any abuse is the abuser’s fault. Policies and laws make it more difficult for the abuser to get away with it and easier for the victim to reach out for help which all decent people desire, however all of the responsibility for the abuse lies with the one perpetrating the abuse.

For more information, see the excellent article 11 Reasons Pastors Should Never Date Their Parishioners by Erik Campano and Denominational Policies on Clergy/Congregant Sexual Contact.