When Letta Cartlidge got on a plane as a teenager to leave her childhood home, she carried a secret. As the child of missionaries in Nigeria, she was sexually abused by a teacher at a school for missionary kids.
As the plane rose above Nigeria, she believed she would have to carry that secret forever. She thought that if she ever reported him—if she even knew how to report her abuser—it would hurt God’s reputation.
“We were in a culture where there was a looming God,” she told CT almost 30 years later. “And that looming God would punish us for disrupting the work of God.”
Cartlidge would, eventually, decide that wasn’t true. As an adult she found the courage to lead fellow former Hillcrest School students in what she calls an “incredibly discouraging” year-and-a-half effort to bring to light more than 40 allegations of abuse spanning from 1961 to 1993. The alumni won a small victory in August, when the school board voted unanimously to approve an external investigation.
It’s a step in the right direction.
Missionary organizations and Christian nonprofits have started paying increased attention to the safety of workers’ children—“missionary kids,” commonly called MKs—and advocates say the past few decades have seen marked improvement. But the rates of abuse are still high.
A recent survey of 1,904 adults who were raised in cross-cultural contexts found they were three times more likely to experience emotional abuse than children raised in their own culture in the United States. More than a third had suffered three or more adverse childhood experiences, such as abuse, violence, or neglect. Almost 30 percent reported some kind of sexual harm.
“A lot of people in the international world think of this as this safe bubble for kids,” said Tanya Crossman, coauthor of the TCK Training report. “Our data is showing the opposite. We want to pay attention and provide the preventive care and provide protective factors.”
Not only do MKs and “third culture kids” (TCKs) suffer more abuse, but they also face extra obstacles reporting abuse overseas, advocates say. And when they do report, they risk being ostracized from the close-knit missions world.
“How is it going on so long?” said advocate Michael Pollock. “All these kinds of abuse continue, and we’re still unwilling to look at it square in the face to call it what it is, and to deal with it in a way that brings healing.”
Historically, missionary boarding schools have been especially vulnerable to abuse because they are very isolated, said Dianne Couts, president of MK Safety Net. They often developed a culture and religious rhetoric of control and discipline.
Boarding schools were considered a necessity for missions to continue, and those who spoke out against them were often seen as a threat to the entire missionary enterprise, said Ruth Van Reken, coauthor of the bestseller Third Culture Kids. In her earlier book, Letters Never Sent, she wrote about her own difficult experience at a boarding school.
Early whistleblowers including Couts and Van Reken brought attention and ultimately change to many MK schooling options. In the past, boarding schools were considered standard for the children of missionaries—often starting at age six. Now only 4 percent of the 170 schools accredited by the Association of Christian Schools International offer boarding options.
And yet, homeschooled MKs still report the highest rates of adverse childhood experiences. Most forms of abuse and neglect are more common for them than they are in the boarding schools, international schools, or local schools that MKs have attended.
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.
“Good luck if you’re a survivor of child sexual abuse on the mission field overseas,” Tchividjian said.
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.
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