Friday, August 8, 2014

SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO: Considering Children

This is the second post in this series. Read the first post here.

After the police have left with our husband or partner in handcuffs, we are left staring into the confused and terrified eyes of our children. These most precious people make the choice of staying or leaving very complicated. Should I stay so that my children can keep their loving ties to their daddy? Or should I leave to err on the side of safety and give them the gift of an almost normal childhood?

I want you to look hard at your unique situation and try to figure out how to give your kids the greatest potential for health, stability, and happiness. This is the most difficult blog to approach because there is such a large variety of situations. You must forgive me for not being able to speak to your exact case. Please feel free to comment below, especially about how you have worked out this decision yourself. I think it is safe to generalize some basic steps for everyone: survive first, gather information second, and make a decision third.

Let's start first with those of you whose children are not victims. When your partner is taken from your household and you are told that he cannot have contact with your children - not even a card or a picture or a "hi" on the phone - you will feel like the legal system has just built a fortress wall through your family. Some of you will be okay with that, but many of you will feel a great shock of unfairness. To add insult to injury, you have a lot of people from the police and social services intruding in your life, maybe even telling you how to live it. Maybe even a few of them has questioned your ability to be a good mom if you say that you love your partner. They might even take your love for him as being supportive of his crimes. They will have a hard time understanding your hope that maybe, just maybe, he will come home again and that his relationship with your children might be salvaged.They might say you're in denial.

I don't think you're in denial just because you give your partner the benefit of the doubt. It is easy for all of the outsiders to forget that you don't have a list of evidence like they do, but instead you have years invested in a relationship. They can't take away you're children for not instantly condemning your partner. My advice is to be straight with those people intruding in your life. They do, unfortunately, have the power to put you through the ringer, so being calm and courteous is wise. Be willing to answer their questions as simply and honestly as possible (no need to give vast details or big emotional scenes). No matter how you dislike these outsiders, remember that they do care about your children's safety - you have that in common with them. If you allow them to see that you prioritize your children, they are likely to ease up on you. You may even find that you can trust some of these people and use their resources. Social workers, especially, have great ties to therapists and supportive services. It's okay to ask about these things. They won't think you're crazy if you admit that the situation has you depressed and you need to talk to someone. I had a whole courtroom talk about my depression and not a soul thought I was an unfit mother because of it.

You need to get as clear a view as possible on your partner's situation and how it will effect your children's future. To do that, you have to look at all sides of the issue, including the side that you might feel is against you. It is important to be open-minded to everything. Listening to your partner is your choice. I also strongly recommend that you also listen to all those outsiders: police, DA, social workers, court appointed advocates, etc. It is easy to dislike them because their methods are clumsy and hurtful, but you don't have to be their friend to have a cooperative relationship. Just remember that they they hold evidence and knowledge that you need in order to fully understand your situation. The social worker assigned to your case will probably have a list of the evidence and be willing to discuss it in generalities with you. Ask them about it, if they haven't already offered to go over it. Also, go to court and listen. You might be attending court already to be emotionally supportive of your partner - that doesn't mean you can't be absorbing the info you need to make wise decisions for yourself and your kids.

Besides learning about your partner's past, you need to gather info about the future. What is it like to be married to a sex offender? What kind of parental role can he play? Again, a social worker can give you some of this info. If your partner is attending treatment already, you might want to try asking the treatment providers. Asking specific questions about your partner will require his permission given formally to the therapist. Getting his permission should not be a daunting task if your partner is truly committed to building the best future possible with his own family. Let your partner know that you want to learn more about his situation and what your family's future will look like. If you get his permission, start with questions about what his treatment will look like in the coming years, how long will it take, and when he will be able to have contact with the kids again. Also ask them about the things you will have to do to have him in your life, such as becoming an Informed Supervisor. One thing that will be hard to ask, but important, is whether the treatment provider thinks your children would be in danger if you stay with your partner. 

I was able to do this with Jake's treatment provider and I learned so much. I learned that jumping through the hoops to be an Informed Supervisor doesn't mean they will automatically let you play that role. They may reject you because they feel that you are in denial, for example. They also told me about some of Jake's manipulation tactics, like fake crying and diversion tactics (puppy stories, especially). I also had a very painful but meaningful conversation with the therapist in which I said, "If he is attracted to teenagers, then my children aren't in danger because they're babies," and she pointed out, "But someday they will grow up to be teenagers." She also then pointed out that I didn't actually know the range of Jake's sexual interest, which later was revealed to include toddlers (he admitted himself, in addition to other evidence). I wouldn't have found that out without talking to the therapist and going to court.

Of course, what I had been hoping to hear from the therapist was that Jake was cooperating in their sessions and had shown sincere desire to improve. I didn't get that, but maybe one of you will get that good news from talking to your partner's therapist. Many of you won't, I'm afraid, but you will get valuable information that will help you make choices about your future.

If you don't get your partner's permission to discuss his personal case, you can still contact the treatment providers and ask if they will discuss general things like, "What does treatment look like? Who makes decisions about the treatment? How long does it take most sex offenders to reach a point of visitation with their own kids? How do you determine when an SO can talk to their kids again? What would I have to do to be an Informed Supervisor and when should I consider doing it? How much will this cost our family?" Sex offender treatment can be a confusing process that differs from state to state and even varies among areas within a state, so going straight to the people who are involved in the program will get you the best answers.

I want to mention something about time. Kids grow up fast. Whenever you get information with a number in years, like treatment or a prison sentence, you should do the math and consider how old your children will be at the end of that time. It lends perspective to everything.

To balance all this info about what it looks like to have a sex offender in the family, you should also look hard at what the alternatives would be. For most of you the alternative is being a single parent and possibly moving to a new town. There are some very obvious downsides for kids, like not having a father figure, not having a stay-at-home mom, moving away from friends, and possibly growing up on a tight budget. Some of those will be issues if you stay, too, especially the budget. Keep in mind, too, that healthy male role models can take many forms, like Grandpas and Uncles. The social stigma is also less on the child of a divorced, single parent than on the child of a felon, let alone a sex offender. But don't just imagine what it's like, call your friends who are single/divorced parents and pester them with questions. You will likely get a variety of answers ranging from "I love the autonomy of the single parent life" to "God, I wish my child had a dad." Also talk to your adult friends who grew up in single-parent families or those who had parents who stuck together despite big issues. Tell your friends about the choice you are trying to make and let them reflect on it. You don't have to take their advice, but it will give you some other facets to consider.

As you gather info, you will be mulling everything over, turning it around in your head. I really want you to imagine what your kids' lives will look like in different situations and what struggles they will have. Try to prioritize your kids in your mind and put your partner's desires second. If you find it hard to separate the two, imagine what you would do if your partner had died in a car crash. Morbid, I know, but that might be what it takes for your brain to separate him from the equation. Of course, the situations are not the same, so you won't make exactly the same decisions, but truly recognizing how it looks like with him and out of the picture helps you to be objective while finding the right path.

One warning, though, don't lean on your kids to make the decision. It is tempting to say to your little one, "Would you like to move away and make new friends at a new school? Or would you rather stay in the town where Daddy lives?" Of course it would be great to get their opinion, but they just don't have the mental capabilities of an adult to see all the issues and weigh the outcomes. Plus, they don't need the added stress of feeling like they are responsible for the whole family's future.

Now let's turn to those of you whose child or children are the victims. I will tread as lightly as possible here because I respect you and I respect your ability to find the right path. I know you want to heal your child. So make that a priority now. If there are choices in front of you, ask if they bring healing to your child. If not, find a new route.

I know you also want to heal your family and have them all together. But that is more likely to be a choice that stops the healing of your child and can place them in danger again. As Janet said in a comment on a previous blog: "It can be very very traumatizing for a child to be trapped into having to live out their childhood with the possibility of being re-molested even if you assure them you will protect them. You really can't."

Your victim child may even be saying to you, "I forgive Daddy, can he come home now?" This can make even the most staunch individual reconsider their hard-line against the offender. But don't lean on an innocent child's confusion and hurting heart to make your decision. Recognize that your child is feeling guilty for a problem they didn't create. They didn't commit this crime any more than you did. As much as you are scared of the changes happening in your life, they are a thousand times more scared. They need to be assured that you are their true guardian, committed to the protection of their healthy upbringing. The "way things were" is never coming back and that is a good thing for your child. So when they want things to go back to the old way, you should realize that is your child's way of saying they want the chaos and confusion and crying to end. You want that, too, and you can make that happen. You have the power to build a new, safe, happy life.

For all moms: Separating yourself from your partner does not shut the door to your child reconnecting with him in the future. It does not mean that healthy relationships can't be formed later in life. It is likely that your child will ask again when they are older if they can meet or communicate with their father. It is an option that can be revisited over and over. Ask yourself whether your child has reached a point of age and healing to face the situation. Ask an objective trusted person, too, like a therapist or a social worker. Keep in mind that it will be stressful because it will bring fresh memories of abuse back to the front of their mind. Also, there is the chance that their father may disappoint them again in any number of ways - can they handle that risk? Also consider that you will be the one managing any fallout. Make sure you are in a place in your life that you can handle it.

One last thing. Someday your kids will fall in love and tie themselves romantically to another person. If your child's partner has issues, at what point would you advise them to leave? You might be proud of a child who supports a partner who has issues, as long as there is hope for the future. But you wouldn't want them staying with someone dangerous or manipulative. Would you want them to hold a hurting family together for the sake of a marriage vow? Picture your children in your shoes, give them advice with love and wisdom, then take that advice yourself. You will be a great role model for your kids if you use your own life as an example.