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What Does Effective Treatment Look Like (part 5)


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The treatment of prescription drug and heroin use is one of the most pressing issues facing our country right now. Across the country, opiate related overdose deaths, fueled by prescription pain killers, now takes more lives that car accidents, with nearly 100 Americans dying from an overdose EVERY DAY.

Given the current state of affairs related to opiate use and abuse, current legal, regulatory, and budgetary constraints, federal agencies and the White House have been working hard to develop guidelines for effective treatment  and to generate and direct resource at this epidemic. But, on the frontlines, counselors and treatment professionals are trying to figure out what will really help and what doesn’t.

There is no silver bullet for a disease as complex as opioid addiction. Research does reveal the longer a person is involved in treatment the better the outcomes. There needs to be an alignment of the stars to get all the wheels of treatment and recovery to move in the same direction. It is not impossible but, without the needed resources, it is very difficult. Let’s take a look at what effective treatment looks like.

1. Individualized Treatment Planning
Each individual comes to treatment with a unique set of circumstances. Some are caught in a domestic abuse situation, others at involved with Children and Family Services, yet others are facing serious legal consequences. Most are simply aware that the path they are on will end in death. Because of the myriad variable in each story, effective treatment must be responsive to the individual needs and considerations. That doesn’t mean there aren’t universal skills each person will need, such as relapse prevention skills, it simply means that a cookie-cutter approach isn’t helpful when everybody starts at a different place.

2. Level of Motivation
Besides the unique process that led an individual to seek treatment there is also a unique level of motivation for each that should be considered. Many develop a sense of hopelessness that they can every get this monkey off their back. Others, while drug dependent, haven’t been motivated by the consequences to quit yet. One of the ways humans resolve the cognitive dissonance between what we do and how that impacts our lives and the lives of those we love, is denial. It’s a protective mechanism that keeps us from being overwhelmed with guilt, shame, and remorse, but also enables ongoing drug use. Understanding a person’s level of motivation is key in helping them through the process, when they are motivated.

3. Understanding the Science of Addiction
We have learned so much in the last 10 years about the brain that we struggle with presenting current information because what we are learning is outpacing our ability to integrate it into treatment. But, people desire to know how the brain works and how drugs affect it. The more you understand that science of behavior and addiction and what is happening in the brain the greater the sense of being able to control what is happening. For example, if a person in treatment learned about how the brain is rewired through drug use and what new behaviors will help the brain heal and rewire into healthier behaviors, that is empowering. There is meaning and understanding to the choices they make. Plus, science is cool.

4. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
There is a direct connection between how we think about ourselves and the world we live in and how we behave. If someone is afraid of flying and they believe planes are unsafe, they will not likely fly anywhere. But, when that thinking is challenged with rational thinking, such as how safe flying actually is, and that you are more likely to be injured in a car accident that have your plane fall from the sky, you are more likely to fly. Good treatment helps the individual challenge and replace irrational thinking and evaluate it in the light of reality. When you live under the fog of addiction you live in survival mode. There is so much deluded thinking that is necessary to navigate that world but is problematic once an individual enters recovery.

5. Wellness
The mind and the body and intricately connected. The benefits of healthy habits are well documented. For the opiate dependent sleep, exercise, and nutrition are essential to quality recovery.

6. Family Engagement
Just because the wind from the storm is over doesn’t mean there still isn’t work that needs done. The family has taken a toll because of their loved one’s addiction. Work needs to occur to rebuild trust and habits of relating to each other. Imaging living with someone and you both speak English (the language of addiction/anger/stress) and then someone goes to treatment or seeks out recovery. In recovery they speak French (recovery, therapy). Now, you have two parties trying to co-exist and they can’t communicate because they speak different languages. Both groups need to be speaking the same language if restoration of relationships is to occur.

7. Accountability
Drug use monitoring is an important part of the recovery process. Drug screens and medication counts help bring accountability to the person in recovery. Because old habits die hard, the need for someone to ask tough questions and to provoke honest dialogue is also necessary. This is most effective when there is trust and rapport between the two parties.

8. Co-occurring Conditions
Many times drug using individuals are self-medicating because of a co-occurring condition, such as PTSD, depression or anxiety. Taking opiates, benzos, or other depressants can give temporary relief to an often debilitating condition. If these conditions are not treated, relapse is imminent.

9. Employment Support
Studies show one of the biggest predictors of sustained recovery is gainful employment. Working gives the individual a sense of purpose, accomplishment, and independence. This can be a challenge if you have a felony record or a spotty work history. Having someone trained to walk alongside you while job seeking can be an indispensable source of encouragement and support.

10. Pro-Social Recreation
Anhedonia is the inability to experience pleasure. This often occurs when the reward center has been hijacked due to years of opiate misuse. When you experience pleasure so off the charts over and over again, the brain rewires to that level as the new default. Anything less than that is no longer experienced as pleasure. Boredom is a HUGE trigger for people early in recovery precisely for this reason. Who wants to live an existence where they experience no or low levels of pleasure in anything. Retraining the brain to enjoy (pleasure) life is also an important part of the recovery process. Developing new hobbies that are not related to using drugs, listening to music without getting high, being sexually intimate without having to use first are all difficult for the person early in recovery.

11. Criminogenic Needs
Do you know what you get when you sober up a horse thief? A sober horse thief. Criminal attitudes and behavior are a part of the lifestyle associated with drug use. The mere fact that someone uses drugs means they are engaged in a criminal act. Along with behaving in a criminal manner means adopting criminal attitudes that support or endorse your behavior. This needs to be undone if someone is going to thrive in recovery.

12. Case Management
Because the person can be caught up in other systems there is a need for effective case management. It is possible that a drug using individual ca be on probation, Children and Family Services, Drug Court, see another therapist for past trauma, or a host of other service, all aimed at helping them get back on the right path. Effectively communicating with these other services is necessary, as is making appropriate referrals to address these needs.

13. Harm Reduction
I won’t say much about this now because I’m designating a future blog to this but Harm Reduction is the idea, that if an individual is not willing or struggling to abstain from drug use, how can we support them where they’re at? For example, providing clean needles is proven to prevent the spread of blood born disease common among IV needle users. This also reduces the associated cost of health care for treating someone, likely without insurance, in the emergency room and ongoing treatment for Hepatitis C, a commonly spread disease among IV needle users. This is a controversial strategy but one that is often misunderstood. We’ll explore this in greater detail.

14. Intersections
Individuals are unique and complex. There are other intersections to consider when providing effective treatment, race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, ability/disability, age, educational levels, and a host of other considerations. All which need to be addressed when providing individualized treatment.

15. Recovery Community
Yes, addiction has biological hooks. The pleasure is such a powerful reward that it draws a user back with powerful cravings. But, more often that not it is reinforced by the community of peers we surround ourselves with when using. Recovery is no different. Creating the community we crave, that was denies by our addiction, is one of the most powerful reinforcers of remaining clean or returning after a relapse. Recovery has more to do with being connected in meaningful ways than just about anything else. The pain of alienation and isolation, the pain of being marginalized and feeling outcast, the deep hurt of feeling utterly unloved and unlovable will drive addiction to dark places we never knew existed. If we are going to heal our those addicted in our communities we must be willing to venture into those dark places and lead them out.

We are constantly learning more about what it means to be a person dependent on opiates every day. In spite of the progress we are making, not everyone who needs treatment can access it when they need it or are motivated to seek it. We’ll address barriers to treatment in our next post. 

Medication Assisted Treatment (part 4)


In our last post we explored the neurological changes that occur in the brain when a person misuses opiates (heroin or prescription pain pills). We learned that the brain’s natural endorphin system shuts down and becomes dependent on an external source, such as heroin or prescription narcotics. We also learned the body requires endorphins to function normally; to manage pain, energy, and mood. So, an individual MUST continue using because it is a physiological necessity.

If a diabetic requires a medication to correct an internal imbalance, they would have the needed support from friends and family to do whatever they needed to do to get better. Yet, there is so much stigma, due to lack of understanding about the nature or opiate dependency, that creates unnecessary barriers to people getting the help they need, especially help that is proven to be the most effective form of treatment for this particular condition.

So how does one break the need to use opiates once these changes occur?

Methadone and Suboxone are both medications that can be prescribed to manage opiate withdrawals and craving while the brain begins the process of rebuilding its internal endorphin workforce.

Methadone is a full agonist opiate, meaning it has the potential to act like any other opiate. It has the potential to satisfy withdrawals and cravings but also has an abuse potential. Suboxone has less risk involved but is expensive and doesn’t work for everyone.

Methadone

Methadone is a synthetic opiate that sits in the brain’s opiate receptors. When prescribed a therapeutic dose, methadone will sit in the opiate receptor and do the necessary jobs of preventing withdrawal, stifling cravings, provide energy, stabilize mood, and manage pain, just like the natural endorphins will eventually begin doing again.

The length of time it takes each person’s brain to fully recovery varies based on many variable, such as; length of time using drugs, quantity and quality of the drugs consumed frequency of consumptions, personal physiology, psychological state, level of physical activity, nutrition, sleep habits, and recovery support.

There is the potential for abuse but if managed well this can be avoided. The methadone clinic providing the medication should always strive for conservative dosing (prevent withdrawal without sedation), random drug screens, diversionary practices, laboratory testing, and ensuring there is adequate recovery capital before allowing take homes.

Methadone tends to work better for individuals with a chronic opiate use disorder. These individuals are more likely to thrive when they have controlled dosing, daily engagement at the clinic, accountability and encouragement, case management and counseling.

Suboxone

Suboxone tends to work better for individuals who already have some measure of recovery capital. These individuals also are more likely to have jobs, transportation, stable housing, and supportive relationships. These individuals are also more likely to have used prescription narcotics vs. street heroin, although some long time users report significant benefits from using Suboxone.

Suboxone is a partial agonist, which means it only does part of the job of an opiate. There are two medications combined to make up Suboxone, the first is Buprenorphine. It will sit in the brain’s opiate receptors but won’t activate the brain’s pleasure/reward center. This is good news because that means there is very little chance of misusing this medication. It also has built in protective factors. There is a ceiling to how much Suboxone you can take. There is a max dose a person can take before they stop receiving benefit from the medication. This reduces the potential for using the medication to “get high”.

There is also naloxone in the medication. This is the same medication they give to someone who overdose on opiates. It is more commonly known as NARCAN. NARCAN, when introduced to the body with “kick” the opiates out of the opiate receptors and reverse an over dose (we’ll talk about NARCAN in greater detail in a future post). If someone on Suboxone tries to misuse this medication or, they try to use other opiates while on the medication, it has the potential to send them into immediate withdrawal. Because of this, there is very little risk that the individual will be able to misuse or abuse the Suboxone.

Because there is less while on Suboxone the consumer has a tendency to stabilize fairly quickly. Methadone takes slightly longer as the individual and treatment team work to establish a therapeutic dose by adjusting the medication over time.

The likelihood of an individual in severe withdrawal engaging in treatment, rebuilding relational trust, or going to work or caring for the kids is very low, if not nearly impossible. There will always be exceptions to this but it is not the norm. The brain will eventually begin to rebuild its own endorphin system and in time, many are able to taper off these medication altogether. There are a number of people who have used in such a way that their brain will never fully recover and will require medication for the remainder of their life.

So, once an individual becomes stable on medication, what does effective treatment for the opiate dependent individual look like. We’ll explore that in our next post.

 

Opiate Tolerance and Withdrawal (part 3)


Tolerance

The struggle that Adam and Eve discovered in the garden, on that fateful day when they ate the apple, was that they learned about something they were never intended to know. Much like the Adam and Eve narrative, when we use opiates our brain learns about something it never knew existed, the increased capacity to experience higher levels of dopamine output. If that sounds too clinical for you then let me make it simple; they (opiate users) discovered a higher, more intense level of pleasure than they ever knew possible. It is so powerful in its reward that it almost immediately sets a new default for pleasure that the brain will always try to attain again.

Our brain is amazing. It is very plastic and adaptive. When it sets its “mind” on something it obsesses on it (cravings/urges) and if we surrender to those cravings we strengthen our connection to that which we are craving.

In the case of the opiate user our brains, the pathways that support the natural endorphin production work just fine but compared to the new superhighway of heroin/prescription narcotics it pales in comparison. The brain is flooded with significantly more endorphins and the brain has to create new pathways and places for them to land. This causes the brain to change and actually grow new endorphin landing sites, which in turn requires more of whatever it is that is flooding the brain with larger amounts of dopamine. Repeat the process. This is called tolerance and the brain is designed to make this happen.

Meanwhile, the old pathways that the naturally produced endorphins use to travel and growing old and less used. Imagine old rural county highways that are overgrown with grass, wore out and crumbled, with cracks and dirt beginning to cover them. They are becoming less traveled because of the nearby superhighway that is allowing more endorphins to travel at higher speeds to the reward center of the brain. In time, nothing will travel on those old roads and if they do it is likely to get lost along the way.

So, what use to give us pleasure; sex, food, relationships, work, recreation, movies, candy, etc. now pale in comparison and no longer deliver what it use to. Now, try to imagine that for a minute…nothing gives you pleasure except the medication your doctor prescribed you for your back pain. You quickly learn the only thing worth pursuing is the next fix, because, as well talk about next, withdrawal is so bad you’ll wish you were dead.

Withdrawal

You’ve been using these pills for several months now. They no longer work like the use to because you’ve developed a tolerance and your doctor is starting to become concerned about the frequency of which you ask for refills and is beginning to talk about not prescribing them anymore. You start to panic and begin visiting different urgent care centers hoping to score some Vicodin.

Instead, you decide to just stop taking the pills. They are costing a fortune and you don’t like the feeling of needing them just to help the kids get ready for school in the morning. So you just stop taking them one day.

REVOLT!

The brain has become dependent on the level of medication you’ve been giving it daily for the last nine months. It shut down its own production of natural endorphins and now relies on you to give it what it needs to function normally, to just get out of bed and not hurt. When the brain revolts like this it makes you feel deathly sick. It is reported that you feel like you’re dying but it never comes.

Common withdrawal symptoms are:

  • Sweating
  • Nausea
  • Muscle cramps
  • Diarrhea
  • Cold sweats/fever
  • Tremors
  • Pain
  • Depression
  • Possible seizures

Your stomach and digestive system has opiate receptors as well and since one of the side-effects of opiate use is constipation, diarrhea would result when in withdrawal. These symptoms are so severe that they would drive you to temporarily suspend your morality and do things you never imagined doing, such as; lying, cheating, stealing, manipulating, breaking the law, becoming violent, all to get money to get more opiates so you won’t be sick any longer. The criminal behavior often associated with drug use is typically a function of the drug use not a personality or character flaw. Stealing and selling possessions, lying or coercing others to get money is simply to not be sick any longer and so they can just get up and take care of their family, house, job, etc.

It is here that sympathies break down. When someone addicted to opiates begins to steal from a loved one we tend to become less empathetic. It’s important to remember at this time that your loved one is suffering from a brain altering dependency on an opiate. Nobody grows up hoping to become a heroin addict.

The brain is a fickle organ. It wants what it wants when it wants it and when it gets it over and over and over again it changes its neurological make-up to accommodate it. This is the nature of a brain disease/disorder that has biological, environmental, behaviors, cognitive, and personality variables influencing the outcome of dependency. At some point the person dependent on opiates loses their ability to choose. They MUST continue to use.

*in our next post we’ll explore the role of medications like methadone and suboxone in helping someone overcome opiate dependency.

This is your brain on opiates (part 2)


What are Opioids?

Opioids are a powerful class of drug that includes the illicit drug heroin as well as the licit pain relievers, such as; oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine, and fentanyl.

Our brains have natural opioid receptor hardwired within it. Opioid receptors interact with nerve cells in the brain and nervous system, controlling pain and delivering pleasure. Everyone on the planet does this naturally through our endorphin system.

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When we engage in pleasurable activities the brain releases these feel good chemicals (dopamine/serotonin) and we experience them as a reward. These chemicals are the drive behind every habit we have. We will almost always do what that which gives us the greatest pleasure or has the greatest potential for removing pain or discomfort. We are hedonic seeking creatures. It’s why we eat when we’re hungry, have sex when we’re horny, and take medicine when we’re sick.

Our natural endorphin system has three primary functions; stabilize mood, provide energy/motivation, and control pain. All necessary to live a functional, normal life. Opiate dependent individuals ALL report they stopped using heroin and pain pills to get high within months of starting. They report primarily using just to feel normal, just to get up and go to work, take care of the kids, and not be sick.

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The Anatomy of an Opiate Addict

When we are prescribed or illicitly take opiates our brains hit the jackpot! Not only does this medication already belong in our systems, it’s much more powerful than the stuff we make naturally. If we take the medication or heroin long enough our brain, being a very efficient organ, will reduce or just stop manufacturing the naturally occurring chemicals and rely on you to provide it via drugs. It’s like the brain lays off all the workers and shuts down the factory.

Opiates are highly addictive because the chemical already belong there. The brain would fight off other foreign chemicals such as cocaine or methamphetamines because it sees them as a threat. But with opiates it just says, “Back that truck up and give me as much as you’ve got!” This is called dependency.

Unfortunately, the longer you use opiates the stronger the neural pathways get that support their use. Consequently, the lesser use natural pathways get weaker and less used neural pathways have a tendency to prune themselves to make room for more frequently used neurons/pathways. The brain, fueled by illicit or licit opiate use creates a superhighway that supports that drug use and he old, natural pathways are like rural back roads that aren’t driven anymore, overgrown and broken down. Even if you tried to take the old rural road it would be hard to traverse because of a lack of use.

So, now an individual is completely dependent on opiates and the brain structure has changed to accommodate this drug use. Paying for daily drugs gets expensive quickly as tolerance to the medication increases. This often leads a moral, kind, good person to do awful things they never imagined doing, such as stealing from grandmother, taking money from their kids piggy banks, selling the family jewelry, or robbing someone using physical force. All just to avoid feeling violently ill. All with the intent to make right as soon as they’re feeling better. But, that never comes. There’s always tomorrow and more sickness. The hole just gets deeper. Add to that the growing sense of shame, guilt, and remorse and you have a desperate, self-loathing person and the perfect antidote for feeling sick and hating yourself…use more drugs. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

If a person began using prescription pain medication and developed a dependency, it’s a short jump to heroin. Maintaining a pill addiction is very expensive and heroin is a cheaper, more powerful alternative. Once you use a needle to inject heroin, there’s no going back from there. Your life becomes a hopeless cycle of using drugs, getting high, hustling for money, getting high. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Opiate use now becomes the only way for a person to function as a human. Most of the public lacks this understanding and perpetuates the false belief that if someone really wanted it bad enough they’d just stop using. Science tells us it simply does not work that way.

*In our next post we’ll explore the conditions known as tolerance and withdrawal and why quitting cold-turkey rarely works and can even be dangerous.

 

Overview of the Opioid Epidemic (part 1)


Let’s start with a brief overview of the current state of affairs related to the opioid crisis. Some of these number will shock you and some will be hard to believe. As an addiction counselor working exclusively with opioid dependent individuals I can tell you these number don’t surprise me at all. Having worked in this field for a few years now I can attest to the growing number of opioid users, especially among the populations listed below. We’ve also seen a growing number of overdose related deaths due to opioid use. To those of us working in the field, it feels like the problem is growing faster than we can treat it. If this were the Ebola virus and that was happening we would do everything we could to contain its spread without hesitation.

The numbers…

Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the US, with 47,055 lethal drug overdoses in 2014. Opioid addiction is driving this epidemic, with 18,893 overdose deaths related to prescription pain relievers, and 10,574 overdose deaths related to heroin in 2014. From 1999 to 2008, overdose death rates, sales and substance use disorder treatment admissions related to prescription pain relievers increased in parallel. The overdose death rate in 2008 was nearly four times the 1999 rate; sales of prescription pain relievers in 2010 were four times those in 1999; and the substance use disorder treatment admission rate in 2009 was six times the 1999 rate. In 2012, 259 million prescriptions were written for opioids, which is more than enough to give every American adult their own bottle of pills. Four in five new heroin users started out misusing prescription painkillers. As a consequence, the rate of heroin overdose deaths nearly quadrupled from 2000 to 2013. During this 14-year period, the rate of heroin overdose showed an average increase of 6% per year from 2000 to 2010, followed by a larger average increase of 37% per year from 2010 to 2013. 94% of respondents in a 2014 survey of people in treatment for opioid addiction said they chose to use heroin because prescription opioids were “far more expensive and harder to obtain.”

Adolescents (12 to 17 years old) 
In 2014, 467,000 adolescents were current nonmedical users of pain reliever, with 168,000 having an addiction to prescription pain relievers. In 2014, an estimated 28,000 adolescents had used heroin in the past year, and an estimated 16,000 were current heroin users. Additionally, an estimated 18,000 adolescents had heroin a heroin use disorder in 2014. People often share their unused pain relievers, unaware of the dangers of nonmedical opioid use. Most adolescents who misuse prescription pain relievers are given them for free by a friend or relative. The prescribing rates for prescription opioids among adolescents and young adults nearly doubled from 1994 to 2007.11

Women

Women are more likely to have chronic pain, be prescribed prescription pain relievers, be given higher doses, and use them for longer time periods than men. Women may become dependent on prescription pain relievers more quickly than men.

48,000 women died of prescription pain reliever overdoses between 1999 and 2010. Prescription pain reliever overdose deaths among women increased more than 400% from 1999 to 2010, compared to 237% among men. Heroin overdose deaths among women have tripled in the last few years. From 2010 through 2013, female heroin overdoses increased from 0.4 to 1.2 per 100,000.

*data from: http://www.asam.org/docs/default-source/advocacy/opioid-addiction-disease-facts-figures.pdf

 

Addressing the Heroin/Opioid Epidemic


The United States is in the midst of an epidemic. The small county I work in reports 3-5 calls per day for opiate related overdoses. Treatment programs from around the area have huge wait lists and people are dying every day. Experts at a recent round table discussion on the problem are predicting that it will only get worse as we tighten physician prescribing of opiates, as opiate dependent people will switch to the cheaper, more accessible heroin to fight off withdrawals.

This, and other reasons are why we are designating time and space to exploring this growing concern. Heroin and opiates are not an inner city problem. The largest growing base of new users are 20-something, middle class, Caucasians, especially women. This problem in already in your backyard if you live in the suburbs or a rural community.This is not to say opiates doesn’t affect those in the city but the myth that it’s inner city black males that are the largest consumer and dealer of illicit drugs in not supported by research.

Over the next several months we will explore the following topics related to the opiate epidemic that is sweeping across the nation.

  1. Who? What? Why? Where? – An overview of the current state of this problem
  2. Understanding how opiates change the brain
  3. Tolerance/Withdrawal/Detoxification
  4. Medication Assisted Treatment – Methadone & Suboxone
  5. What does effective treatment look like and what are the barriers to accessing it
  6. Harm Reduction (needle exchanges, narcan, and condoms)
  7. Mass Incarceration and the War on Drugs
  8. Co-occurring Disorders
  9. Family Systems and Substance Use
  10. Intersection of class, race, gender, sexual orientation
  11. Education and Employment
  12. What is the role of the church?

U.S. drug control strategy has largely been focused on law enforcement. Police have done their jobs and have done them well. In the last 20 year we have seen record arrests, drug seizures, and incarceration of drug offenders and yet the drug problem is only getting worse and more deadly, not to mention wasted valuable taxpayer resources. It’s time to collectively create a new way of addressing the drug problem in our country. What we’re doing now clearly isn’t working.

Keeping Children/Youth Safe From Abuse In Church: Best Practices


In our last post we looked at what faith communities need to know and think about regarding sexual abuse. In this post we will look at very specific behaviors churches/ministries can take to reduce the actual risk of sexual abuse occurring in their buildings and programs.

  • Do the hard work of developing policies

Many churches or youth and children ministries already have policies on how to address abuse when it occurs. It would be prudent to develop an abuse prevention policy as well. For example, have a 2-1 adult-child ratio at all times would be a safer practice that allowing 1-on-1 adult to child ratio. If a child needs spiritual counseling or is in a mentoring relationship with an adult, restricting physical touch to only public spaces or simply minimizing (side hug vs. full frontal, prolonged hug) is also a best practice.

  • Identify and question confusing behaviors

This will take an environmental curator, who is skilled at communication, to shape the culture and make it safe and acceptable to talk about confusing or uncomfortable behaviors. Nobody wants to accuse someone of sexual abuse but having a climate that identifies behavior that could potentially be misconstrued as inappropriate is a good starting point.

  • Don’t wait! Address inappropriate behaviors

Speaking up about your concerns is not the same as accusing someone of sexual abuse and could serve to keep unhealthy or dangerous behaviors from occurring in the first place. The very nature of prevention is to act before the illegal sexual behavior occurs. Drawing a boundary of safe and appropriate behavior early is the important work of prevention. Don’t wait until the line is crossed, be proactive.

  • No hide and seek

When planning for child/youth space, we often look at it through the lens of the child or physical harm to the child. We should also be looking at our physical spaces through the lens of a potential perpetrator; where are there blind spots, hiding spaces where abuse might occur. Be mindful of the activities you play, such as; hide and seek, sardines, etc. Consider adding windows to interior walls for safer viewing and higher levels of accountability.

  • Plan for messy people

The church is and should be a place of restoration and reconciliation. People who have sexually abuse others in the past often look to faith and religion as a means of overcoming their problem. What are your protocol for how they can navigate your community? Are certain areas off limits? What legal restrictions do they have? Who is meeting with the abuser for counseling and accountability? Thinking this through ahead of time will give you the opportunity to be proactive and decrease the likelihood of unwanted difficulties.

 

In our next post we will look at best practices for responding to a sexual abuse crisis should it happen in your church/program.

Church Readiness for Sexual Abuse: Reducing Risk


Churches that care about children are an important part of our culture. The need for spiritual and moral development is imperative for our future as humans and also for the future of all faith traditions. The significance of growing into a community of people that love and support you is essential for a successful transition into adulthood as well. Unfortunately, any community can be vulnerable to sexual abuse, especially when adults interact with those children on a regular basis.

  • It can happen in your church.

“It won’t ever happen here.” Famous last words. There is no such thing as a “typical” sexual predator. They come in all shapes and sizes. We can’t afford to live in denial about the possibility that sexual abuse can happen in our ministries. Talking about it won’t make it happen. Talking about it publicly will help keep it in the forefront of your minds and will communicate a sense of safety, that this issue is not being ignored. Parents are always thinking about the possibility so your ministry should as well.

  • You’re as sick as your secrets.

Should sexual abuse occur in your church or ministry, you might be tempted to avoid the public scandal. Don’t! Nothing feels worse to the victim than brushing abuse under the rug. Don’t minimize or victim-blame. Speak out directly to your community, cooperate with the police, walk alongside the victim, and walk alongside the abuser. This will be messy but it will be worth it in the end as it will give everyone a sense of security that this issue is taken seriously and that we (the church) is in it for the long road to recovery.

  • Background checks – it’s a good start.

Background checks should be required by now. If not, you’re already vulnerable to predatory individuals. While background checks are essential, law enforcement says that 88% of sexual assault goes unreported. That means 9 out of 10 offenders will not have a criminal background. Proper vetting, relationships, ongoing supervision, accountability, and policy are necessary to reduce the risk of abuse happening in your ministry.

  • The importance of policies and procedures.

Beyond background check, extensive and comprehensive policies and procedures are going to be your best defense against child/youth abuse in your community. Good policies make clear that your ministry is committed to nurturing safe spaces for your kids to explore faith and tradition.

 

Legal Issues For The Church Dealing With Child/Youth Abuse


Limits of Confidentiality/Legal Issues/Mandated Reporting

Everything that happens in therapy is strictly confidential and protected under the law. Your therapist cannot discuss anything about your therapy, or even identify that you are a client, unless you give your written permission. There are some instances when a therapist will talk with someone about your case without obtaining your consent that is allowed under the law. These include reviewing your case during Clinical Supervision or Peer Consultation, sharing required information with your health insurance, discussing your case with other mental health or healthcare providers to collaborate services provided to you.

There are some instances in which a therapist is required to break confidentiality under the law. These apply to those in ministry serving youth. They include:

Mandated Reporting Laws

Child Abuse – includes physical or sexual abuse, neglect, excessive corporal punishment, child abduction and exposure to domestic violence that is traumatizing to the child. Child abuse reporting only applies to children who are currently under the age of 18. Abuse that happened in your childhood prior to becoming an adult is not reportable unless there is a child who is currently in danger of being abused. The reporter is required to report suspected child abuse in addition to known incidents of abuse. Child abuse is reported to the Department of Children and Family Services who will investigate the abuse allegations.

Spend time with your staff and volunteers exploring what each form of abuse looks like and what your policy/procedures are for addressing it. (i.e., neglect – being left at home at a young age without adequate food available for long periods of time.)

Dependent Adult/Elder Abuse – includes physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, abduction, financial abuse, self-neglect, isolating the adult and not providing proper care, including medical and mental health needs. Again, the reporter is required to report suspected abuse in addition to know abuse.

Intent to Harm Yourself or Others

If anyone discloses the intention or a plan to harm another person, you are legally required to warn the intended victim and report this information to legal authorities. If they discloses or imply that they have  plan for to harm or kill themself, you, as a mandated reported, are required by law to take precautions to keep them safe, which includes contacting a family member or friend to watch over them for a specified amount of time, a referral to a psychiatric hospital or police intervention if necessary.

 

Contact your local child protective services to ask about state specific requirements and training.

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