Working with Amish Families on Child Abuse and Neglect

Amish children face special abuse & neglect risks. We can help.

Posted May 18, 2019

Coauthored with Jeanette Harder, Ph.D.

Understanding Amish values and customs helps us support families and communities to keep their children safe. In this piece, we provide background on various aspects of Amish life as well as specific suggestions regarding child abuse and neglect.

Rapid population growth has prompted Amish families to move outside their usual hometowns in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana as they seek land to maintain their ideal way of life‒crop farming.  With the Amish now living in at least 31 U.S. states, four Canadian provinces, Bolivia and Argentina (Amish Population Profile, 2018), people who work in medicine, social services, and mental health are coming into contact with Amish families for the first time. 

Randy Faith/Unsplash
Source: Randy Faith/Unsplash

Amish communities’ use of horse-and-buggies for transportation and their unique dress can lead others to believe they are all the same.  Looking closer, we see that Amish groups differ from one another in terms of their clothing, home construction, language, family size, level of assimilation and access to wealth. While most Amish families farm the land or raise animals, others run cottage industries such as quilting or building furniture, and a small number work in modern factories run by people from outside their community.  Given this diversity, a “one size fits all” approach will not meet the needs of Amish families.        

Amish History

Emerging out of the 1500's Protestant Reformation in South Germany and Switzerland, a small group of people argued that adults should be able to make voluntary decisions about faith.  They re-baptized each other, which was a capital crime, and they became known as “Anabaptists,” which means re-baptizers.  In 1693, in Switzerland and France, an Anabaptist leader, Jakob Ammann sought to renew the church, including sharper separation from the world and more severe shunning of wayward members to maintain the church’s witness and purity. This group came to be known as the “Amish.” Waves of the Amish came to the U.S. to escape persecution and gain religious freedom in the mid-1700's, and again in the late 1800's.

VALUES & CUSTOMS

Humility, Obedience, Acceptance & Non-violence

The Amish value self-denial and humility, based in Romans 12:3: that each man should “not think of himself more highly than he ought to think,” leading them to try to avoid appearing “proud.”  The Amish foster a very real sense of “yieldedness” (gelassenheit, in German).  This approach to life gives them an aura of obedience, submission, and resignation to the will of God. For example, when Amish children become ill or get hurt, whether from abuse or an accident, their parents may look uncaring to outsiders who misinterpret their acceptance of the way things are as a sign of lack of concern for their children (it is not!).

Steve Best/Stock Snap
Amish Farm
Source: Steve Best/Stock Snap

The Amish value nonviolence, which is expressed as pacifism and non-participation in the military.  This value also leads them to avoid reporting crimes and avoid participating in court cases against people who have wronged them.

Nonverbal Communication

The Amish usually speak slowly and quietly, allowing silence, and they tend to avoid being assertive in their language or actions.  The Amish place a very high value on children as gifts from God and form strong close bonds with their children.  However, they are not likely to show this caring through open displays of affection toward their children in the presence of non-Amish.

Conformity & Community

The Amish faith and understanding of the Bible guide their lives.  Unlike other societies, the Amish do not value individual choice, critical thinking, diversity, freedom, or progress.  Community norms and church leaders govern all aspects of their lives.  They do not disdain technology entirely, but rather embrace it carefully and deliberately in ways they feel will not distract from their families and communities.  Community preservation comes first in making large and small decisions.  For example, if community members owned a car or rubber-wheeled farm vehicles, it would be easier for them to leave. Traditional horse-and-buggy transportation helps preserve the Amish lifestyle. Similarly, a telephone in the house would distract from family life.  Conformity in dress, transportation, homes, and farming or business gives the Amish a sense of safety and belonging and relieves them of the need to make individual choices. 

Family Life & Education

A typical Amish family has a mother, father, and six or seven children, although ten percent of Amish families—those who belong to more conservative communities-- have ten or more children.  From a young age, Amish children contribute to family life through work inside and outside the house.  Children often participate in daily chores, with 2-year-olds carrying wood, 4-year-olds feeding calves, 10-year-olds tending livestock and driving pony carts, and young teens operating skid loaders and driving horse-drawn buggies.  Families do not clearly delineate between children’s work and play.  In addition, parents typically think of their children as more capable than do non-Amish parents resulting in children taking on a lot of responsibility, including care for younger siblings.  Children attend Amish schools, which is where they typically learn some limited English.  After 8th grade, Amish youth leave traditional schools and enter into informal apprenticeships.  Amish couples date within their community group and typically marry in their early twenties.

Women’s Roles  

Jeanette Harder with permission
Mother & children
Source: Jeanette Harder with permission

Women’s roles vary considerably by community, although women always have the primary responsibility of caring for home and children (Johnson-Weiner, 2017).  Mothers and fathers who are farmers share more equally in the parenting and family livelihood, giving farming women more access to cash.  However, if the father works in a business, particularly one that takes him away from the home, the father typically speaks better English, has less contact with children, and has more control of family finances.  While community life is patriarchal in that only men are allowed to assume leadership roles in family and church, women participate in decision-making and may attend and vote in business meetings.

CHILD ABUSE & NEGLECT: STRENGTHS & VULNERABILITIES 

Amish Family Strengths

Amish families and communities love and cherish their children.  Amish children are protected from many child welfare risks such as parental unemployment, divorce, and homelessness, which are virtually nonexistent in Amish communities.  Typically, those who are vulnerable by age, health, or ability are well cared for within their tight social fabric.  Children grow up in large families with strong ties to parents, siblings, cousins, uncles, and aunts.  When a family experiences a hardship such as death, injury or illness, the community will rally around them.

Safety Concerns

Certain aspects of Amish community life pose special risks.  Little statistical information is available on Amish families and child welfare, so this article explains the risks without making claims that such problems are more or less common among Amish families than other families: we just don’t know.

Vladimir Kudinov/Unsplash
Farming as a family
Source: Vladimir Kudinov/Unsplash

Inadequate Supervision. Children in Amish families may suffer injuries due to their families’ use of primitive farming, transportation, and household practices coupled with large family sizes.  Amish children may be run over by large and small machinery, hurt by large animals, involved in buggy accidents, drown in ponds, or suffer burns from stoves, lanterns, and house fires. Large family size may inhibit parents’ abilities to supervise their children, and care is often delegated to older siblings, who are sometimes just barely older than their charges.

Discipline & Physical Abuse. Amish parents typically value obedience and use corporal punishment.  They invoke the biblical proverb of “spare the rod, and spoil the child” in both home and school settings.  They strongly believe that spanking is critical for children’s healthy development, and physical abuse can result. The spankings often involve objects other than hands, since hands are considered instruments of love.

Sexual Abuse.  As with all groups, childhood sexual abuse occurs in some Amish families. Incest appears to go unchecked in some families and communities (McGuigan, 2015), and bestiality shows up in some of the more conservative and insular communities. Amish schooling does not include science, let alone sex education, putting children and adults at a disadvantage in terms of their knowledge about healthy sexual practices.  

Medical Neglect.  Many Amish resist taking their children to health clinics for preventive health and dental care; they turn first to home remedies for illnesses.  They may or may not vaccinate their children, which has led to outbreaks of measles and other communicable diseases.  Because Amish marry within small, closed communities and most are descended from a group of a few hundred founders, Amish children are at higher risk for dangerous genetic conditions.  With their reticence to receive extraordinary medical care, their lack of insurance, and lack of English language fluency, many Amish families refuse lifesaving procedures for their children, which puts them into contact with child welfare systems. 

Reporting Abuse & Participating in Prosecutions.  The Amish are unlikely to report crimes including child abuse to civil authorities. Because Amish children attend school within their community, their visibility to mandatory reports such as teachers or health professionals and their ability to report to outside authorities is limited. Abuse may be reported only when it is severe enough to be noticed by non-Amish neighbors. At times, child welfare and legal professionals have harmed children through assessments, investigations, and interventions that do not take into account the customs and values of this unique population. 

The Amish emphasis on forgiveness and the non-prosecution of legal cases allows offenders to continue their harmful behaviors unchecked.  The Amish will emphasize the importance of the perpetrator's repentance, to save his soul, rather than child protection. Further, the Amish embracing of suffering and hard work often communicates to children that they should endure abuse silently, and that they share responsibility for any harm they experience.

Suggestions for Working with Amish Families

1) Avoid offense: Word spreads quickly—within Amish families, between neighbors, and from community to community.  If you OR your organization acquires a negative label, it will be hard to win back their trust.

2) Dress modestly: Wear modest clothing that does not show a lot of skin, and use minimal jewelry and makeup.

3) Be mindful of gender: Male professionals should not go into a house without a male family member present.  It is best if a man and a woman professional can work as a team with an Amish family, each working primarily with members of the same sex.  If this is not possible, female workers can invite (male) church leaders to accompany them to homes.

4) Reveal your humanity and take time to build rapport: The Amish care more about a person’s genuine interest than their education, title, or even the organization they represent. Slow down, sit back, and put away your checklist.  Rapport builds with Amish families when professionals shed some of their bureaucratic persona and share everyday details about themselves, such as thoughts about the weather, gardening, or cooking, or briefly describe their own families.  This rapport building can take more than an hour, but Amish families may require this much time before they are comfortable enough with an outsider to engage meaningfully.

5) Consider the location: Try to conduct interviews and meetings where Amish family members are comfortable, such as in their homes at the kitchen table, on the porch, or in the barn or yard.  If you invite them to your office, be sure to provide enough space and chairs for a large group.  They will likely bring along extended family members and church leaders.

6) Be respectful: Focus on common values such as children's safety.  Listen closely to what family members say. If they feel safe, Amish people will be eager to tell you about their community. Ask open-ended, nonjudgmental questions.

7) Tune in to language issues: Because most Amish are not native speakers of English, they may not understand your questions, may be slow to respond, may use words differently, and may speak with a heavy accent.  Listen carefully and ask for clarification, when needed.  Use simple vocabulary and explain more complex terms.  Invite Amish people to tell you what they heard you say, or to summarize what they read.  As with other people who are not native speakers of English (Fontes, 2008), just because family members smile and nod, does not mean they understand your words or concepts.

8) Use interpreters as needed: In serious or especially complex situations, engage a professional interpreter of Pennsylvania Dutch.  Communication is much improved when clients can speak in their preferred language.  Where interpreters are hard to find, church or other community leaders may be able to interpret.  However, there are serious problems with the reliability of interpretations by people who are not professional interpreters.  As with other non-native speakers, do not rely on young children to interpret for their parents.

9) Be cautious about out-of-home placements: Do everything possible to prevent the removal of children from the home, and especially to prevent removal of children from the community.  Recruit, train, and empower safe, kinship, foster, and adoptive families among Amish families.  Differences and resentments across communities can make cross-community fostering or adoption far more contentious than an outsider might imagine.

10) Establish community liaisons: Build bonds with key contact people from Amish communities to facilitate your work; these will most likely need to be church leaders, but may also be other older men in the community. Clearly, forming bonds only with men is problematic, but many Amish women will not spend time with non-Amish women without their husbands present.

11) Reach out through safety meetings: Most Amish communities already hold safety meetings or are attending safety meetings in other communities.  Topics include farm, fire, home and roadway safety; these may be geared to children or parents or both.  Help parents understand risks at different developmental levels.  Community professionals such as the county sheriff’s office, fire and health departments, and university extension offices can help with these meetings.

Culturally competent professionals can tap into Amish families' love of their children and help families and communities keep their children safe.

Jeanette Harder, Ph.D., is a Professor of Social Work at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and co-founder and board member of Dove’s Nest, a nonprofit that empowers and equips faith communities to keep children and youth safe across the U.S. and Canada.

References

Hurd J. (2015) The Amish Gemeinschaft Community: Pro-woman? In: Johnson A. (eds) Religion and Men's Violence Against Women. Springer, New York, NY

Johnson-Weiner, K. M. (2017). New York Amish: Life in the Plain Communities of the Empire State (second edition). Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press. 

Kraybill, D. B., Johnson-Weiner, K. M., Nolt, S. M. (2013). The Amish. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

McGuigan, W. M., & Stephenson, S. J. (2015). A Single-Case Study of Resiliency After Extreme Incest in an Old Order Amish Family. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 24, 526–537.