Understanding Institutional Abuse

Like sibling abuse, institutional abuse can take the form of any other type of child maltreatment: emotional, physical, sexual, or neglect.

"Country Church." CC image courtesy of Flickr, keeva999.
“Country Church.” CC image courtesy of Flickr, keeva999.

What makes institutional abuse unique is that it is perpetrated by institutions entrusted with the care of children. Sadly, these institutions could very well be popular and respected programs within homeschooling communities. The Washington, D.C. Child and Family Services Agency defines institutional abuse as, “any form of abuse or neglect…while a child is in the care of an institution. If the maltreatment is caused by employees of the institution, it is classified as institutional abuse.” Examples of such institutions include (but are not limited to):

  • Medical care facilities
  • Foster care homes
  • Runaway shelters
  • Youth groups
  • Churches
  • Teen camps
  • Missions organizations
  • “Troubled youth” ministries

In cases of intentional harm caused to children (such as physical violence or rape), the cause of the harm is obvious. But there are also less obvious causes of harm (especially when the harm is unintended but nonetheless damaging). In the formal setting of an institution, child abuse could be caused by factors such as:

  • A “closed” culture within an organization where transparency is discouraged
  • Failure to properly check the backgrounds and interview staff
  • Inadequate training of staff
  • Lack of child protection policies
  • Lack of support of staff by management
  • Poor communication skills
  • Poor supervision of staff and children

Stories from homeschool alumni demonstrate that institutional abuse can occur even within well-respected educational and religious programs popular within homeschooling communities. For example, numerous cases of institutional abuse have arisen concerning the mental health of young adults entrusted to the care of or employed by the Institute for Cultural Communicators (formerly known as Communicators for Christ). One young woman explained that, despite ICC’s owners being fully aware that she had recently attempted suicide and struggled with depression, self-injury, and an eating disorder, she was given increasingly stressful jobs and no one monitored her mental health. A veteran ICC staff member — who was well into his 20’s — also engaged in sexually inappropriate behavior with her, despite her being underage. Yet another staff member corroborated some of these stories, saying that ICC was responsible for “putting individuals on the team who had severe mental and emotional health problems, with no safety net or plan to give them the treatment that they needed to thrive.” Furthermore, a paid ICC employee, Susan Young, has alleged that ICC’s owners violated labor laws by trying to interfere with her mental health care treatment.

Circumstances such as these indicate just how important it is that homeschooling families and communities become aware of the realities of institutional abuse. They also point to how organizations and institutions can institute changes to better take care of the children in their care.

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Types of institutional abuse

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Institutional abuse is usually divided into 3 categories:

  1. Overt abuse
  2. Program abuse
  3. System abuse

Overt abuse is similar to parent- or sibling-based child abuse. It is any overt emotional, physical, or sexual abuse perpetrated by the employee of an institution against a child entrusted to that institution — for example, a staff member at a homeschool convention or a church counselor.

Program abuse is when an institution specifically operates its ministry or program below acceptable conditions or misuses its power or responsibility in order to modify the behavior of a child. Forcing a child into a traumatic situation in order to create a certain emotional reaction would be an example of program abuse.

System abuse is caused when an institution becomes stretched beyond its capacity and thus causes neglect through inadequate care or resources. For example, if an institution knowingly assumes parental responsibilities for young adults who have mental health problems, but has no time to fulfill those responsibilities by taking care of those adults’ mental health, that would be an example of system abuse. 

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Examples of institutional abuse

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The following are all examples of institutional abuse:

  • Failure to respect or support a child’s right to choice, dignity or independence
  • Providing no flexibility in bed times
  • Forcefully and startlingly waking a child up
  • Inappropriate confinement or restraint of a child
  • Depriving a child of personal clothing or possessions
  • Forcing a child into stark living areas
  • Not providing a child with a choice in food or forcing a child to eat food that child is allergic to
  • Forcing a child into traumatic situations
  • Unnecessary staff or management involvement in a child’s personal finances
  • Inappropriate use of nursing or medical procedures, e.g. using un-prescribed medication enemas
  • Inappropriate use of power or control
  • Depriving or discouraging a child from necessary medical care
  • Failing to report the sexual abuse of a child under the institution’s care

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Warning signs of institutional abuse

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The warning signs of institutional abuse can include the warning signs of child abuse and neglect in general. However, institutional abuse also has unique warning signs. These include (but are not limited to):

  • The institution and/or its staff members have received multiple allegations or complaints about abuse or neglect.
  • The institution and/or its staff members isolate people from their family or community.
  • The institution and/or its staff members always blame the children or young adults in their care rather than examine institutional shortcomings.
  • Children or young adults in the care of an institution exhibit signs of increased stress or trauma (such as eating disorders, self-injury, suicidal urges, etc.)
  • The institution and/or its staff members treat adults like they are children.
  • The institution and/or its staff members treat children in harsh, startling, or punitive ways.
  • The institution and/or its staff members frequently make arbitrary decisions.
  • The institution and/or its staff members employ unreasonably strict or regimented schedules for daily activities such as meal times, bathroom use, and bathing/showering.
  • The institution and/or its staff members show a lack of privacy, dignity, choice, or respect for those entrusted to their care.
  • The institution and/or its staff members create an unsafe or unhygienic environment.
  • The institution and/or its staff members refuse to respect individuals’ cultural, dietary, or religious backgrounds.

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Preventing institutional abuse

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There are many steps that you as a fellow parent, homeschool leader, or homeschooling organization can take to prevent child neglect in your community. These include:

First, research the organizations and institutions you are entrusting your children to before you trust them.

As a parent living in the 21st century, you have the immense advantage of the Internet. Conduct an internet search of whatever organizations or institutions you are thinking about sending your children to. Add the words “abuse” or “neglect” to your search — e.g., search for the phrase “Teen Mania” AND “abuse”. While we should all understand that just because something is said on the Internet doesn’t mean it’s true, we should also understand that when multiple people are observing the exact same abusive patterns, that should give us pause.

Second, always stay in touch with your child when your child is in the institution’s care.

Make sure you stay in regular contact with any child you entrust to an institution, no matter what type of institution it is. In cases of medical or mental health treatment, you don’t want to invade your child’s privacy. But you should make sure your child is ok, feels safe and comfortable, and isn’t experiencing trauma. 

Third, never trust an organization or institution that does not let you stay in touch with your child.

This should be a no-brainer, but many institutions — even Christian ones, like some of Bill Gothard’s “troubled youth” ministries — try to keep children from contacting their parents and vice-versa. This should set off your parental alarms.

Fourth, know the warning signs of institutional abuse (listed above) as well as the warning signs of child abuse and neglect in general.

Fifth, make sure the institutions understand abuse and neglect.

Do the research to find out if the institutions or organizations your children are involved with are following proper child protection procedures. Are they conducting background checks? Do they have a child protection policy in place? Are you sure they do not handle abuse “in house”? Do they have mandatory reporters on staff? If you don’t know, ask.

Sixth, if you become aware of child abuse in an institution, report it to the proper authorities.

Seventh, if you become of aware of child neglect in an institution, speak up.

Don’t risk other parents unknowingly sending their children to an abusive organization as well.

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