One family's story, a vision to help
Updated: Aug 30, 2021
You’re probably aware that I spent my final year at McMaster researching some of the ways we can respond to families who have experienced a crisis and have posted my academic papers in previous blog posts, but I want to break it down into smaller components that are more reader friendly. So over the next several weeks, my blog posts will explain the different elements of my vision for The Butterfly Project.
I want to begin by offering one family’s story. Although this is a fictional family, their situation is based on a collection of true stories, written from the perspective of (healthy) human development and the impact of a crisis. These perspectives are important because many crises, in particular, child sexual abuse, have long term/generational implications and healthy/unhealthy human development and the response (if any) to a crisis, helps to explain the long term effects.
The point of sharing a detailed story, isn’t only for application sake. There is a very real stigma that accompanies certain types of crises. Crisis and trauma does not discriminate between the poor, rich, less educated, Christian or Atheist, as though any of those labels disqualifies them from our love and intervention. One of my goals is to dispel the myth that “it couldn’t happen to me.” Also… we can’t heal what is hidden. It is really important to the healing process for victims to be seen and heard and for the truth to be told.
The following content may be triggering. I’m praying for you. My hope is that by engaging in this material and the vision behind The Butterfly Project, you will find healing and comfort knowing you are not alone.
Donna and Ted’s story
Ted and Donna have been happily married for about eight years and have three children, Allison who is 18 months, Theo who has just turned four, and Maggie who is nearly six. They have a very busy household. Ted works shift work and commutes to the city. Donna is a full-time mom and volunteers in the kid’s ministry at their church. They have a modest but nice home and a dog named Buster. They are dedicated parents who love their kids and enjoy family life together.
They have been getting closer to the family next door. It took a little while, between Ted’s schedule and Donna having to look after three busy kids, there isn’t a lot of time or energy for friends. But the kids often play together in the backyard, and Gwen (the mom next door) has been pretty insistent they should hang out. Gwen’s middle child, Matthew, is very helpful, sometimes comes over and asks if he can take Buster for a walk - it’s not easy for Donna to get three kids out the door to take the dog for a walk and he really likes Buster. He also has lots of energy to chase after Allison, the family energizer bunny, and seems to enjoy simply sitting watching cartoons with the kids on a Saturday morning. Donna doesn’t mind Matthew coming over to help entertain the kids most of the time, she’s noticed some odd things about his dad that she can’t quite put her finger on, and Gwen isn’t a believer as far as she can tell, so she feels as though she’s doing a good thing by giving Matthew some time in a loving Christian home.
Donna mentioned one day that she would love to get to the Farmer’s Market early on a Saturday but she finds it too much to do alone when Ted is working. Gwen suggested Matthew, who would be turning 14 in only a month, would be a good babysitter, and besides, all the kids do in the morning is eat breakfast in front of the TV anyway. Donna could take her time and enjoy her alone time, Ted would be home only an hour later from work. Sounds like just the break Donna has been longing for. So Saturday morning Donna got everyone organized, Maggie didn’t want to be left at home so Donna relented and brought her along, leaving Theo and Allison at home with Matthew to watch cartoons. Gwen said she would check in on them before Ted got home. Donna returned home not too long after, the kids were all playing outside in the backyard which she wasn’t expecting. Somewhat frustrated that Ted must have sent them out so he could get some sleep, she thanked Matthew, gave him $5, and sent him home so she could get the kids out of their PJ’s.
A couple of days later while Donna was colouring with the kids, out of nowhere, Theo said “we played the pee-pee game with Matthew.” Donna said nothing, she was instantly in shock. She simply got up from the table and went into Ted who was sleeping after his night shift. She sat at the side of the bed and began sobbing. Ted woke and thought someone had died. Once Donna had pulled herself together, she left Ted and went back out to the table to respond to Theo. “Theo I’m sorry, mommy just needed a time out. Can you tell me again what happened?” Theo didn’t need to say more; Donna knew in a harrowing way precisely what had happened as if she had been there. She managed to tell Theo and the girls that telling her was the right thing to do and she was proud of them. By now Ted was up and dressed. They packed up and went into Grandma and Grandpa’s house so they could decide what to do next. This is what is known as The Impact Phase of a crisis.
Numb and disoriented, Donna and Ted decided to call the police. Donna spoke with an officer who took her statement. As she told the officer about how the situation unfolded, she was at times overwhelmed with guilt, “why didn’t I just take them with me?” she said out loud over and over, “I should have known.” They were instructed to take the kids to the local Family Services Center where they met with a Social Worker and a Detective. The kids were interviewed and examined by a Doctor. Theo told the Detective exactly what he had said to his mom and more. As the Detective told Donna and Ted about the interview, Donna felt her world come crashing in. At this point Ted had completely checked out, nothing was registering.
Charges were laid, a court date set. Victim Crisis Assistance contacted Donna and were able to give her a small amount of money to begin counselling support but did not have a list of available counsellors specifically for children. No other support or intervention took place because the victim in this crime was not Donna or Ted, it was the kids and since Donna and Ted were a functioning and seemingly fit family unit, it was up to them to figure out how to move forward. Donna was ashamed and could not bring herself to go to the Pastor of their church. She could not bear to even think about how this was affecting her faith. How could a good and loving God allow such a horrible thing to happen to a child?
Ted had to go back to work very soon after they reported what happened. Donna was at home with the kids, and was quickly slipping into depression. She could not bring herself to go outside other than to take the kids to the play therapist that she was able to find in a local directory. Donna was taking care of the kids physical needs but that was about it. Ted and Donna’s relationship is unsurprisingly strained. They are beginning to experience financial strain, counselling is expensive and Ted’s benefits only cover 50 percent of the cost. They eventually fall behind with their bills, including their mortgage. Isolated from their friends and faith community, they are experiencing a snowball effect of new and ongoing crises.
Some of the Implications
Traumatic events of any kind send four messages to children: your world is no longer safe, your world is no longer kind, your world is no longer predictable, and your world is no longer trustworthy. Without intervention and support, this family is in trouble. Mindful/healthy parent (or primary caregiver) involvement is vital for successful interventions with children. The goal for early mediation is to restore healthy child development through secure attachments after a traumatic event. This helps to prevent significant and long lasting consequences, consequences which often manifest in adolescence and adulthood.
What support is available to this family? The response to Donna and Ted’s family has been necessarily clinical and fact based. Police, Doctors, Social Workers, even the Play Therapist are all operating within their mandates. They are all limited in their response to the role they have, however essential they each are. But we can see from the above scenario, it’s not enough and this family is quickly approaching a breaking point, one that will be a very long and difficult journey to recover from.
It doesn’t have to be that way. The Butterfly Project has identified a pathway for families to begin their healing journey in a tangible way. That is why we purchased this 11-acre property in Muskoka. Our desire is that this property will be accessible to families for early crisis intervention in the form of a respite cottage and supportive environment. That supportive environment is based on an integrated approach to theology and psychological research which support specific responses, such as healing through rest, time in nature and making art. I look forward to explaining these elements in more detail with you in the coming weeks!