(Editor’s note: This story is the fifth part of a multi-part series “Stolen Innocence,” about children who have been victimized by abuse that began in Issue #1 and continues through Issue #6. Several staff members took it upon themselves to interview to interview, take photographs and conduct research. The results of their combined efforts follow.)
by CHESANIE BRANTLEY/Editor-in-Chief
Children throughout the world are suffering from abuse related to religious and cultural ideologies.
The Child-Friendly Faith Project (CFFP) is a national nonprofit public charity that protects children from this type of abuse through education.
“I started (the Child-Friendly Faith Project) in 2012,” said Janet Heimlich, executive director of the CFFP, which is based in Austin, Texas.
Heimlich said she decided the CFFP was needed following the publication of her book, “Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Maltreatment.” Heimlich started the CFFP to educate people about this cultural type of child abuse and neglect.
“Since my book exposed a lot of the problems, we feel that the organization’s mission is more about providing solutions,” said Heimlich.
Some of the religious maltreatment Heimlich is trying to provide solutions for include withholding medical care because of the belief of faith healing, failing to report sexual abuse to protect the image of a religious leader, and administering severe punishments because the Bible says parents should use “the rod” to discipline children.
“It dawned on me after hearing so many cases,” said Heimlich, “and I think when a big bell went off is when I read in the New York Times that an 11 year-old girl died from diabetes.”
Heimlich said the girl was from Wisconsin, and that it effected her so much because diabetes is a very treatable condition. She said people live with diabetes their entire lives, and all the girl needed was to get insulin.
“Because her parents refused to take her to a doctor, they snuffed out her life,” Heimlich recalled. “They took away any ability she had to grow up, be an adult and have a fulfilling life.”
Heimlich said after she started following other cases that involved physical, emotional and sexual abuse, it became clear there was a theme running in many of them.
The type of abuse that is most common is neglect, which is the same as abuse not involving religion, according to Heimlich.
Heimlich said there are many people who volunteer to work at the Child-Friendly Faith Project. The volunteers come educated in what kind of work they will be doing for the CFFP.
“Our whole mission is protecting children through education,” Heimlich said. “We have programs that educate the general public, faith communities and professionals about these issues.”
Heimlich said what makes the CFFP unique is the way that it offers education, a way that no other organization has done before. For the public, the CFFP holds conferences that people can attend to become more educated on this specific kind of child maltreatment. For faith communities, the CFFP offers the designation program. In this program, churches, synagogues and mosques can be designated Child-Friendly Faith Communities that go through the CFFP’s curriculum. Professionals such as social workers, attorneys and pediatricians are educated through a program called the webinar series.
“We actually offer training to them so that they learn how to better investigate these cases, and how to better protect children who are victims,” Heimlich explains.
Heimlich said the most satisfying part of her job is when she is able to help an individual go from being a victim to being a survivor and then becoming an advocate.
“That’s a really exciting process to see take place for them, as well as for other survivors,” said Heimlich.
She also said that although the CFFP does not get into lobbying a lot, being able to change legislation is exciting. Project Idaho, is another program with the CFFP. With Project Idaho, the CFFP is trying to get the state of Idaho to repeal its religious exemptions which protect adults who deny children in need of medical care on religious grounds from being prosecuted.
“We started earlier this year with a legislative session,” recalled Heimlich. “I thought we did a really good job opposing that bill and testifying against it, and, as a result, they ended up improving the bill immensely. So that was really gratifying.”
One big challenge that the CFFP faces, according to Heimlich, is finding the time between educating the population to seek funding and convincing people that it is OK to talk about these issues.
“We have found time and time again that faith leaders, congregants, youth program directors and others in faith communities are very concerned about this topic,” said Heimlich.
The faith communities are very interested in learning about child religious maltreatment, and they would like to be involved in teaching others about it, according to Heimlich.
“Most people who abuse and neglect children justify their actions in some way,” said Heimlich, “and when it’s done using a religious doctrine, a lot of times people don’t recognize it as maltreatment, and that’s a big problem.”
Heimlich said she thinks the best way to battle child abuse is through education. She said that people inside faith communities, outside faith communities, professionals, legislators, and the public needs to learn about the risk factors and understand that while it is a sensitive issue, there are children being harmed in the name of faith.