Friday, June 06, 2008

More On Religion And Child Abuse

Since I've written about the issues with the FDLS compound, I might as well stay out on a limb and address another area in which the cultural mores of an otherwise well-meaning religious group can too often lead to dangerous child abuse. This is going to upset some people, but it needs to be said.

When I was growing up, my parents took in foster children. They felt that our family had been blessed with many resources and a loving home and that we should share those things with people who needed them. Then, as now, foster parents were in fairly short supply. At foster parent organization meetings and events, it was evident that a certain kind of very literal-interpretationist, Bible-based, fundamentalist Christian was very strongly represented as a group among foster parents. Clearly, these families felt that caring for foster children was part of their Christian responsibility, which I thought was great. My own family is Christian - Roman Catholic - and I was even sent to religious school. Quite involved in the life of our own church, I was surprised that my usually open-minded mother seemed to disapprove of these kind foster parents. She did not disapprove of them as people, or of their motivations in being involved in foster care, but she clearly felt they were ill-suited for it. At the the time, I thought this was a strange prejudice of hers, especially since my own godmother and her best friend was far on that side of the Christianity spectrum and we have always loved and respected her deeply.

Now I understand my mother's concerns.

I am no longer a Catholic, having been convinced as a young adult that the Religious Society of Friends was the place for me, but I definitely am in line now with my mother's concerns about the fundamentalist Protestants who do foster care. I have seen what happens and I see why it happens: there is a culture of corporal punishment in these denominations which is dangerous for foster children.

Full disclosure: I believe that corporal punishment is wrong, anyways, for everyone, but that is just me. The state of Texas itself, however, mandates that corporal punishment is not permitted when dealing with foster children, and that is probably true of most states. Foster parents and case workers sometimes discuss this rule as though it is mainly in place because of the psychological damage that foster children have already sustained from abuse, and there is truth to that ... but it isn't the only reason for the rule.

Foster children are difficult.

If you take in foster babies, you spend a lot of time at the hospital because getting sick is the only way that infants can express their sorrow and grief at being separated from their mothers. If you take in older foster children, though, you will find them acting out in other ways. Like hitting the other kids, screaming at you in defiance, breaking every toy in your house and setting things on fire sometimes. They are upset and they do not love you - not for a long time. This can try the patience of a saint.

Taking kids like that and placing them with parents who believe that their Christian duty to their children involves physical discipline is a recipe for disaster. Things escalate and children die. By accident, at the hands of people who love them. There is a terrible case in our community ... well, these deaths are really tragic. I agree with my mother, now: foster children shouldn't be placed with families who belong to a strong culture of corporal punishment, despite the excellent intentions of said people; it's dangerous. That doesn't mean that every fundamentalist Christian belongs to such a culture, of course, but it is very common.

My concern is not only for foster children, either. I have had numerous friends who are part of that subculture, ones who, knowing my aversion to corporal punishment, will tell me that they don't use it much - "only for true rebellion". That is the key phrase you hear, a marker of sorts in that subculture of corporal punishment - they believe that rebellion must be met with the rod. My own child has been safely and lovingly reared, but she is rebellious, spirited, determined, intense. I shiver to think what her life would be like in such a subculture. These families used to read Ezzo for child-rearing advice, even after the American Academy of Pediatrics started issuing warnings that his methods of "Christian parenting" were leading to failure to thrive and outright starvation in breastfed babies. Now there is a fringe that turns to Michael Pearl and the Raising Godly Tomatoes crowd - people who advocate whipping little babies to train them up to be "godly" - and more. These people aren't monsters - they are loving parents trying to do right by their children - but they are wrong. It is always abusive to strike a baby.

There is much good to be found in the fundamentalist Christian community but there is also this - a subculture of physical discipline that all too easily leads to abuse couched in the name of Christian parenting. The Commandments tell us not to take the name of the Lord, our God, in vain. I do not believe that God meant that it was dreadfully sinful to say "Jesus Christ!" when we stub our toes - I believe that God meant not to do evil, evil like abusing children, in the name of God. Our evil is our own.


Alkelda the Gleeful said...

I didn't know about this subculture, but yeah, as you illustrated, it's complicated. I don't believe in corporal punishment, but I can well understand how any adult would find foster-parenting a challenge and be at their wit's end. Ahem, I've been at my wit's end with my own child. I wonder if there are support networks for foster-parents... if not, could we get some?

Lone Star Ma said...

There are support networks. When you really believe in the importance of corporal punishment, though - I think things are going to go wrong in that scenario.

gojirama said...

Well said. As a Christian I get so angry at hearing God's name invoked to justify hitting children. Thank you, thank you, for saying this.