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What I Learned About Supporting Abuse Victims at Church as a Survivor

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I always had the sense that the members of my little midwestern branch of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints knew something wasn’t quite right at home. After all, there were signs.

My Young Women’s leader once asked me what song I was listening to on my old walkman. I gave her my cheap foam headphones and she heard “Two Beds and a Coffee Machine” by Savage Garden, a song all about surviving domestic violence. I listened to it on repeat as a pre-teen.

When my drunken stepfather showed up at a youth activity and walked through a church member’s house screaming we had to leave, the leaders tried to convince him to let us stay and did what they could to prevent us from getting into the car with him.

After another incident, a leader pulled me into an empty classroom at church and told me a story about her father used to hit her. I think she was trying to help me talk about what was really going on, but I recall staying quiet, scared about getting in trouble. I didn’t know how to talk about what was happening to me.

When my branch president reviewed my mission papers, he made a comment about how the branch had failed us. I thought it was true. They had failed us. But I wasn’t angry about it at the time. Abuse happened, but the proof didn’t seem to be there to do anything about it.

Years went by and my stepfather passed away. Not long after he died, I drove to a Relief Society activity with a woman in our branch. Her husband had been our home teacher since I was a child. We talked about my stepfather and suddenly the hushed tones of the past were erased. It was clear by her words that so many people knew what had happened. She told me how her husband used to always follow us home from activities or events when he knew my stepdad was drunk to make sure we got home safely. Those around us were scared my stepfather would crash the car.

I was paralyzed by her words. Hadn’t they realized as I walked out of the car and into the house, that I wished someone, anyone would come and help us? The anger settled in then. How could anyone watch a drunk man walk children into a house and drive away?

With the ongoing conversations about reporting abuse in the Church and claims of systemic failures, I’ve thought about my own experience. In honesty, nothing but grace exists now when I think of my leaders and those who tried to help my family. A lot has changed since I was young—training and resources available now were not available then. I don’t say this as an excuse, but my heart is tender when I think of the momentous task it is to try and save a family in trouble by volunteer leaders who often don’t have the experience or the expertise to step in.

Of course, this is why so many voices call for continued church-wide efforts to help leaders and other adults feel more confident and assured in handling abuse and reporting it properly. From personal experience, I know just how important these larger systems are and the consequences of their failure.

I wish I had more answers or a more clear voice on how to ensure children and youth today are protected and cared for, but I still walk a road of healing and it can be hard to make sense of it all. However, there are a few things I’ve learned about what would have helped me and my family the most. I hope they can inspire local leaders and other members on how to act in their own realms as best they can.

Focus on the Victim’s Experience & Healing

Looking back, I realize a lot of people, including stake presidents, stepped in to try and help my stepfather get his addiction under control. While this was admirable, the same sort of attention was not given to my siblings and me. We remained in an abusive situation.

Instead of focusing on changing the victimizer in order to prevent and stop abuse, it’s best to focus on the victims and how to remove them completely from harm’s way. While this is what the Church teaches, it is so much harder to do thank you think, especially if the full extent of the abuse isn’t known. A leader may try to avoid “breaking up a family” when they think they can help someone overcome an addiction or go through the repentance process.

Put the victim’s safety and well-being first, every time. Take every report of abuse seriously and follow through on all indications or worries.

Teach Children & Youth Emotional Intelligence

I knew that the abuse I suffered was wrong, but I didn’t know how to talk about it or advocate for myself. I wish I had the emotional language and tools to know how to speak out and stand up for myself. We never want this to be the responsibility of any child, but it can save lives and prevent further trauma.

Use youth groups and appropriate venues to help children and youth learn about emotional intelligence, boundaries, and what options they have when they struggle. Talk about abuse, how to know if they are in an abusive situation, and how abuse is never their fault.

You want to create the type of environment where youth are empowered to report abuse as much as possible.

Educate Yourself on Signs of Abuse

The Church has ample resources for learning about abuse and how to report it, including a 30-minute interactive training. Familiarize yourself with these resources.

I believe all people of faith want to protect children and youth from abuse, including the leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I hope that by sharing this story someone can feel inspired on how to strengthen their own commitment to the victims in their lives.

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Aleah Ingram
Aleah Ingram
Aleah is a graduate of Southern Virginia University, where she studied English, Creative Writing, and Dance. She now works full time as a marketing and product manager, writer, and editor. Aleah served a mission in California and loves baking, Lang Leav poetry, Gaynor Minden pointe shoes, and Bollywood movies.

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