Building Bridges with Plain Communities to Promote Safety for Children and Youth in All Families

Building Bridges

By Dr. Jeanette Harder, Dove's Nest's Cofounder and Speaker's Bureau Member

How did I get here? After spending 14 months in my basement taking Zoom calls and pacing the floor, I got in my car and drove over 1,000 miles across the country to spend the summer researching Plain communities’ responses to child abuse. To say I experienced culture shock would be a gross understatement.

The Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, was my home base for the summer. I spent every moment I could immersing myself in the lives of Amish and Plain Mennonites across Pennsylvania, New York, and Ohio. In the end, I netted 35 recorded interviews with the most remarkable people I have ever met and more memories than I can recall in a lifetime.

My head and heart reel as I recall the narratives shared with me by Old Order Mennonite families caring for children who have experienced abuse by their “English” (non-Plain community) birth parents, New Order Amish families caring for children with attachment disorder, and conservative Mennonite families caring for children who have experienced unspeakable trauma. I can still see the African American children dressed in Plain clothing, hiding under the trees as I drove onto their farm—their parents explaining to me that their children are afraid that I am there to take them away. And I can still see the sad eyes of the mothers as they recall the children no longer in their home, and the loving eyes of the fathers as they recall favorite memories of interacting with children in their care.

Men and women in Plain communities have also formed crisis teams to respond to child abuse in their communities. Day after day, they set aside their own responsibilities in exchange for listening to a survivor of abuse, or transporting an abuse offender to treatment, or assembling a support team for a family. Professionals in child protection, law enforcement, and mental health care shared with me their respect and gratitude for the work of these crisis teams in providing support for victims and their families.

Oh, I know the Plain communities aren’t perfect. They’ll be quick to tell you that too. But neither are we or our systems perfect. I was privileged that so many families trusted me with their experiences. Their open and generous hospitality to me was nothing short of remarkable, and for that I am grateful. My sincere prayer is that now I will be a good steward of these experiences, sharing them with social service professionals across the country and building bridges between cultures that promote safety for children and youth in all families.