What Is a Missionary Kid Worth?
According to the TCK Training research, MKs often live in isolated environments. And the more often they move, the more vulnerable they become to abuse.
“The sense of reality and what’s true and real in a new situation is thrown up in the air,” said Pollock. “Their relational anchors get pulled up. And then structures of reporting, like who’s safe, may be missing or changed.”
MKs are often put in close contact with other missionaries they don’t know but are expected to trust, he said. And their parents are often under a lot of stress and pressure to perform, with ideas about sacrificing their personal well-being for the gospel. Mental health care and social networks that prevent or catch abuse are weaker.
“The way that missions is set up is fundamentally broken,” said missionary life coach and speaker Sarita Hartz. “The mission is placed above those who serve the mission. Missionaries are collateral damage.”
The systems in place to protect MKs have improved dramatically in the past two decades. But survivors and advocates say the cracks are still glaringly obvious. The Child Safety & Protection Network (CSPN), for example, was founded in 2006 with 13 missionary organizations. Today, there are 130 member organizations.
Many of those have, for the first time, hired a child safety officer. The International Mission Board, the missionary arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, is a member of the CSPN and hired its first abuse prevention and response officer in 2018.
The network provides training and curricula, but it doesn’t actually investigate allegations of abuse.
“We’re not the ones that hold that accountability,” said board member Tom Hardeman.
Victims who believe their organization is mishandling abuse allegations often have no one to appeal to. Complaints can only be dealt with internally.
“We have mission boards who are accountable to no one but themselves who are funded by individual independent churches who are accountable to no one but themselves,” said Couts.
In 2003, president George W. Bush signed the PROTECT Act—Prosecutorial Remedies and Other Tools to end the Exploitation of Children Today—into law. It criminalized sexual abuse by American citizens who are overseas but doesn’t apply to citizens of other countries. MKs who are abused by Americans can report it to a US embassy or call the FBI. If the abuser is not a US citizen, abuse victims can contact local police.
According to victim advocates, however, reporting to local authorities can be fraught. Laws that define abuse and set age of consent vary, as do cultural norms around sex. It is often unclear what the repercussions of a report will be on the mission organization, and victims worry about upsetting the close mission communities that also function as their support system.
“Life as you know it is contingent on nothing dramatic happening,” said victims’ advocate Michèle Phoenix.
Many abuse victims feel responsible for what happened to them. MK victims can feel an additional responsibility to protect the missionary organization.
“You’re trying to protect your parents,” said MK Safety Net board member Rich Darr, “but you’re also trying to protect all these ‘aunts’ and ‘uncles.’”
Those “aunts” and “uncles” are also not required to report abuse if they become aware of it. There’s no mandatory reporting law internationally. According to Boz Tchividjian, attorney and founder of Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment, mandatory reporting is critical for protecting children. He asked US legislators to pass an international mandatory reporting law in 2015, without success.
The difficult work of fighting to change things has mostly been left to survivors, adult MKs who are dealing with their own trauma and decide they have to do something.
Wess Stafford, former president of Compassion International, recalled how difficult that decision was for him. He wrote his memoir and at first didn’t include how he was abused as a child at a missionary boarding school in Guinea.
“It took me a long time to say, ‘You know what? All right. I don’t want to leave this world without having fought this battle,’” Stafford told CT.
Cartlidge—who’s in the thick of pushing for accountability for historical abuse—spends her days waiting for responses to emails, wading through arguments over who’s responsible, and figuring out the next step in a process that has no standard procedures.
But she’s not alone with her secret anymore. And she’s hopeful that more Christians will refuse to look away from scores of MK abuse survivors who are asking for help.
“Most of your missionary kids are going to say, ‘Just be the church to us,’” said Darr, sitting next to Cartlidge in a Zoom interview. “We’re hurting. We need your help.”
Rebecca Hopkins is a journalist living in Colorado.