March 8, 2017

A Restorative Justice Response to Child Sexual Abuse

A few month's ago, I had the great pleasure of connecting with Elizabeth Clemants, who has played a huge part in creating Hidden Water NYC, a restorative justice program designed to help individuals heal from the devastating impact of child sexual abuse within a family system. Importantly, they have developed programs for family members, advocates, and abusers. It is a great honor to have her here this month sharing about their programs and perspective on how we can address this epidemic.

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Child sexual abuse is prevalent in our society. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys experience child sexual abuse in the United States. This alarmingly high number is compounded by the reality that the abuse is not an isolated event – it has a profound lasting impact on the person who was harmed, as well as on family members and future generations. Beyond the family system, child sexual abuse (CSA) is considered an antecedent to crime, drug and alcohol abuse, incarceration, suicide attempts, dropping out of school, teen pregnancy, cutting and other trauma reactions that ultimately have an effect on the greater society.
Hidden Water is a not for profit organization formed in 2015 to help victims and their relatives heal from the devastating impact of child sexual abuse using a restorative justice framework. The Hidden Water model takes the view that CSA produces a constellation of harm that reverberates throughout an impacted family. Everyone is affected, and healing comes from the family members —  not just the one directly harmed.  Hidden Water works with four distinct groups of people harmed by CSA; 1) those who were harmed, 2) those who harmed a child, 3) the non-offending parent(s) or caregivers, and 4) family and friends. 
Healing from CSA, regardless of which category you identify with, involves shifting the response we have to the event — minimizing, denying, blaming, justifying, deflecting or shutting down — and moving through the pain that is being avoided: shame. The avoidance of shame leads to self-denying and self-destructive behaviors, such as the use of addictions of all sorts.  We believe that if people knew how to walk the path to healing their family, they would.  Given the opportunity to courageously take the steps to acknowledge the impact of the abuse on each person, families can heal themselves, and keep the abuse from finding its way to the next generation.
The mistake many families make is to believe that “it happened so long ago” when in fact the events continue to impact a family that has never properly faced it together.  It takes leadership, strength, and a willingness to face the often unspoken pain that surround the events, and all the shame events that have happened since the original abuse. 
In the coming weeks, we will write about the wisdom that comes from the four healing circles mentioned above and the family system that is deeply impacted by them. 
Next week:  Green and Blue:  healing circles for those who have been harmed.
Following week:  Orange and Purple:  healing circle for those who have harmed; directly, or indirectly.
Final week:  Healing the family system through accountability and understanding  


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Elizabeth is a social worker at heart. She has always been interested in the intersection of social work and the law. To that end, she attend Columbia University School of Social Work where she graduated with an MSW and a Minor in Law. She immediately went to work in the field of conflict resolution and has been practicing ADR since 1997. She has founded three programs in conflict resolution, of which Hidden Water is one, where she serves a Board President. She also founded and runs Small Business Arbitration Center with the aim of offering truly affordable, binding conflict resolution services to small businesses and their clients. Elizabeth is also the principal trainer at Planning Change, whose mission it is educate and empower individuals to affect meaningful change in the conflicts around them. In addition to the programs, Elizabeth works as a mediator, a coach, a shaman and speaks regularly at events and conferences. 

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