March 14, 2017

The Path Forward for Survivors & Their Families

This week, we continue our series with Elizabeth Clemants who shares about the importance of survivors reaching a place of acknowledgement and for family members and friends to also be given the support to explore how they have been impacted by the abuse their loved one experienced.


Last week I provided an overview of the work of Hidden Water, which endeavors to help survivors and their family members heal from the devastating impact of child sexual abuse (CSA). This work is done in two stages, first as an individual in a Healing Circle and then as a group in a Family System Circle. There are four types of healing circles offered, corresponding to four basic “roles” in the family:

For those who have been harmed sexually as children

(Purple) For those who have harmed a child within their family system sexually

(Orange) For those who had the responsibility of keeping a child safe from harm, but through inaction or not knowing, were unable to do so,

(Blue) For family members and supporters who were not harmed and did not harm a child sexually.

In the Healing Circles, individuals who identify as belonging in one of these circles come together to support one another in facing the impact of CSA on their lives. Participants explore areas for personal growth and are introduced to a three-stage model of repairing from harm, which is based on the restorative justice theory. This model highlights a path to healing for participants.

This first stage involves maneuvers that cloud the impact of what happened, like Denying (“it didn’t happen”), Minimizing (“It’s not a big deal”), Justifying (“I had a good reason”), Deflection (“Don’t look at me, I’m not the one that…”), and Blaming (“It’s your own fault”). 

These moves are reactions meant to move away from shame -- a powerful and painful emotion that people will go to great lengths to avoid feeling. Being harmed can make us feel like we are less than someone else, maybe even less than human. We are not seen by the other, but projected onto in some way that causes us shame. Similarly, causing harm can be a shameful event.

Too many people who experience CSA don’t leave this first stage. In this space, they devote a lot of energy to suppressing shame. For many, the efficacy of this strategy will diminish and they may develop addictions to help in their effort.

Healing from CSA can only occur if we step into the second phase of healing: acknowledging the impact of the abuse on us, and getting angry about it. People

so often tell me they have forgiven the person that did this, and are “over it”. And yet, it continues to show itself in dysfunctional patterns in relationships and situations, in depression and anxiety, in physical ailments. If you have never let yourself be angry and acknowledged the impact of the abuse - even to yourself, then you have not moved into true forgiveness yet.

Hidden Water is built precisely to give those who have been harmed by CSA an opportunity to find a safe space to explore the actual impact of the abuse over time. It seems that this cannot be done in isolation. In the circles, as we listen and hold space for others to give voice to the impact of the abuse on their lives, we see the many facets of how CSA has seeped into our lives and changed us in unconscious ways. This is true of all the members of a family, not just the ones that were harmed physically - but all the members were harmed in many ways. All need to be given the opportunity to explore how, and give voice to the feelings that come with that.

The BLUE circle is a great example of how this needs to be done by all. We are continuously amazed to see how the harm of CSA reaches everyone in the system with many harm events coming after the abuse has been disclosed. The family and friends who were not directly involved in the harm need an opportunity to express how they have been affected. Once they have, they are more able to hold space, have insight, power and compassion for the other people in the family. Often these are siblings, best friends, uncles, aunts, cousins, family friends, spouses of those that were harmed.

In Hidden Water, we are trying to build an army of healed folks within the family system to lend support to the overall healing and world view in a family. When you have people in the family that are no longer afraid to speak the situation out loud, who can see the harm of silence and denial, who will be vigilantly watching over the next generation for signs of abuse - there is suddenly support for those that were harmed in a way that was lacking before. When someone tries to minimize the abuse, or blame the victim, it is the healed BLUE person that is often right there to correct the false thinking, speak out for safety and health and acknowledge the on-going impact of the abuse.

And in this way, the family system starts to heal.

Read Part 3: The Healing Journey for Abusers & Those Who Didn't Intercede


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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