Excuse Me, Lord: Religious Coercion in Foster Care

Excuse Me, Lord: Religious Coercion in Foster Care March 12, 2017

By Beth Wilks

Content warning: child abuse

“You must bathe in the blood of Jesus!” the woman moaned, swaying, arms upraised. She stood over me, a prickly-chinned foster mother with a concave, angular body like a praying mantis—conveying a ravenous piety, enforcing it in her children, and devouring her more passive husband in its ardor. I’d been caught with a book called Literature of the Supernatural. I was nine. I giggled, appalled. “Excuse me, Lord.” I was admonished for my wickedness. Arms raised again. “Sorry for the interruption, Lord.”

a child's prayerI’ve never wrestled with the psychological aspects of leaving behind an earnest faith, but my experience in foster care amply illustrates the potential horrors of childhood indoctrination. Luckily for me, it just wouldn’t take. Having lost our parents, both nonsectarian progressives, my younger sister and I were assigned to a social worker who considered himself “born again.” Our remaining relatives expressed their reservations on our behalf about placing us in a religious home, but were assured the “Reynolds” would not impose their views. Besides, where was the harm?

When the doors closed behind us and the social worker drove away, we were made to kneel on the floor immediately. The shock of betrayal, the expression of triumph on Mrs. Reynold’s face, the strangeness of this forced ritual, was terrifying. We were to be made over. From our underwear (deemed immodest, they were replaced with chest-high cotton briefs and thick undershirts) to our little jean jackets (tossed out, because wicked) and even our hair (forced to don matching pageboys), we were remade in the image of “proper” Christian girls. Mrs. Reynolds seemed obsessed with the word “dainty,” a prescription of behavior and appearance that the clumsy proto-feminist artist in me found disgusting. We were enrolled in Sunday school and taken to church despite our adamant protests. Several times a day we were forced to kneel in a circle while Mrs. Reynolds raised her arms and spoke to her god, trembling in quasi-sexual, righteous ecstasy while recounting even our most mundane sins. When a mail carrier or delivery person showed up, they were coerced into joining us, which was especially mortifying. She chased after us, voice shrill, arms and legs jabbing the air. There were frequent, prolonged bouts of slavering religious mania. She showed us pictures of previous foster children, Indigenous kids, who she claimed had accepted Christ. She was especially proud of this and planned to foster more, undoubtedly to save them from their heathen ways. She demanded our submission, and quoted liberally from the Pauline epistles to get it. Our relations heard about this and became alarmed, complaining to the social worker, who made (as a Freedom of Information request revealed years later) an amused and minimizing note of it in my file.

Lack of respect, autonomy, privacy, and decency, along with the constant threat of hell, of being “left behind,” drove me to ever greater acts of defiance. “I hate you!” “I won’t go!” “This food looks like puke!” etc. This vexed her, as much was made of my Bible reading, which was due not to a latent desire for conversion, as she hoped, but to curiosity. With all the literature in our earlier childhood home, we had been encouraged to read without interference or censure. I found the behavior of the adults around me truly baffling, and I reckoned this book had a lot to do with it. Rising tension in the Reynolds’ home became more focused on my “wickedness,” my face slapped in retaliation. Hints of an invading “demonic influence” crept into her rants. Perhaps inevitably, the day of my exorcism arrived.

* * *

In British Columbia, where I write, the obligation of prospective foster parents to respect the spiritual rights of children in care was nonexistent before 1996. Lobbying by Aboriginal survivors of what was known as the “Sixties Scoop,” and an impugning inquiry into a horrific case of abuse, forced the government to draft the “Rights of Children in Care” into law, and to design cultural sensitivity training workshops for potential foster parents. Tellingly, this legislation stipulates that children have the right to religious instruction of their choice, but omits the right to be free of religious instruction. In fact, before 1985, some provinces expressly forbade the nonreligious from fostering at all, with a reference from clergy required. Despite the legislation, the cultural default to view Christian homes as intrinsically wholesome remains. (Some years later, after my sister and I were separated, she wound up in a group home where the proprietress—Ministry-approved—declared herself an incarnation of the Virgin Mary.)

In the United States, as recently as 2013 the ACLU forced the state of Kentucky to make sweeping changes in its contractual arrangements with religiously affiliated foster-care agencies, after it was found that state funds were being used to proselytize children and advance religion by employees of a Baptist state contractor. For years, numerous children had complained of coercion. The case took a decade to wind through the courts. Under the settlement, new rules forbid agencies from pressuring children to participate in religious worship or instruction. Current debate in the US over affiliated agencies in general is focused on the populist issue of religious freedom: while progressive states (laudably) terminate funding to agencies over discrimination against LGBTQ children and parents, conservative states respond with bills protecting the rights of agencies to discriminate according to their religion. Unfortunately, little room is left in the discussion to cast an appraising eye on the indoctrination practices of so many agencies.

Back in Canada, the province of Ontario licenses private Christian foster-care agencies and refers children in crisis to their care and placement regardless of belief. Their own Rights of Children in Care list includes the right to “Participate in your religion and culture”; presumably this is included in organizational and prospective foster-care training. However, a prominent Christian placement agency’s website declaims:

Children are referred . . . by Family and Children’s Services in Ontario for placement in foster homes supervised by our Agency. This allows [us] to provide faith based training, extensive support and the climate of a caring Christian extended family. . . . It is our mission to assist children . . . as they learn . . . faith in God and themselves.

In a personal email, I asked if they ever place children from different faiths or none, and if the children are required to participate in the family religion. They responded in the affirmative but emphasized the rules in place against religious coercion. However, they explained, “It’s about exposing them to . . . Christ, and hoping that they choose that for themselves . . . Children, over time, seem to enjoy being a part of this aspect of family life.”

Certainly, many thousands of Christians make fine foster parents, but the danger remains: Who oversees the assessment process when, inevitably, an assumption of suitability is made based on religious affiliation alone? How can followers of scripture, without exception, guarantee a respectful distance from the spiritual life of a child in care, when there is a soul that needs saving?

* * *

I don’t remember much of it, except the sense of violation, the sting of being told my actions, thoughts, and feelings embodied evil when I was just a precocious little girl who didn’t want to be a Christian. Cornered in the back kitchen, I focused on her dress—dirt-brown polyester with daisies—and waited. I’d picked a dogwood flower from the tree, they said that’s illegal, could she have found out? But it was always more, a riddle: why did terrible things keep happening to me? A murky silence lay over the house, its other occupants steering clear. I left my body, taking care to leave a defiant smirk on its face, and, remaining motionless, floated in the place children go to endure. Hands were placed on my head, demons were called and cast out, gory revelatory verse was recited. And I remember mostly how she enjoyed it, a ghastly smile on her face, like a pious Cruella de Vil. Since then I’ve also thought of William Blatty’s The Exorcist, not as a tale of someone possessed by the devil, but as a parable of the erasure of self by the forced imposition of patriarchal religion, played out as a war on a little girl’s body—the part of her refusing to be vanquished spelling the words in raised welts on her flesh: HELP ME.

Help finally arrived some months later, with the intervention of a very determined grandmother, and we were placed with relatives. Mrs. Reynolds was eventually divorced and diagnosed with schizophrenia, and the last I heard, resides as one of the elder-wives of Bountiful. My sister is a successful author on the West Coast. For me, the aftermath of life with the Reynolds shares neuronal space with multiple impacts from a complex web of incidents, merging into an obstinate case of PTSD. However, the exorcism failed: I remain entirely self-possessed.

Photo by Nancy Big Crow / CC BY 2.0

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