Female victims of sex crime struggle to cope following the revelation that their child has been abused by their partner. Chloe Stothart investigates how social workers can respond
When Jenny* found out a family friend had been sexually abusing her seven-year-old daughter the life she knew fell apart. “I could not believe someone we let into our home could do that to my daughter,” she recalls.
Not only did she feel terrible about her daughter’s suffering, but the abuse triggered long-buried memories of being raped herself aged 18 by a group of men and again five years later by a boyfriend. “I had a massive breakdown,” she says. “All my stuff came up for the first time in a long while. I know how it feels to be violated and I know how my daughter was feeling. I could not handle it.”
But things got even worse. Unbeknown to her, her then partner had been giving her double doses of the medication she had been prescribed after her breakdown in order to sedate her while he too abused her daughter. Jenny’s daughter told her two years later, once she thought her mother was strong enough to take the news, and after Jenny had left her partner.
Social services assessed the family, decided her daughter was safe at home, offered 10 weeks of counselling to her daughter but nothing to Jenny. “I felt like they did their report and were away and I was left there to deal with everything and that’s what led to my breakdown.” She thinks parents in abuse cases should be given counselling so that they are better equipped to support their child and cope with their own feelings.
Jenny is not the only victim of a sex crime whose child has also been abused. Trainer and counsellor Denise Alcock estimates that between 50% and 80% of the female partners of male sex abusers of children that she counselled when she worked for the NSPCC’s dangerous adults team were victims themselves in childhood.
The figures sound high but she points out the women were referred to her for counselling because they were struggling to come to terms with their child’s abuse and their own abuse may have made it harder for them to do this. As in Jenny’s case, the discovery that their partner has abused their child may bring back feelings about their own abuse as well as betrayal by someone they loved.
With such complex feelings coming to the fore, women sometimes act in unexpected ways. They may be unable to accept that someone they loved could abuse their child or, like Jenny, suffer physical or mental decline. “They fluctuate from believing it completely and being devastated and thinking it cannot have happened,” she says. Alcock says she has come across very distressed women dubbed hysterical when they phoned professionals repeatedly saying how bad they felt about the abuse. She stresses that the women she counselled were protective towards their children – they did not reject their child in favour of their partner – but needed help to fully accept what their partner had done.
The way mothers respond to abuse allegations are also influenced by the way social workers question them. Questions that the mother could see as blaming her, even unintentionally – such as implying they should have known what was happening or chose a bad partner – can get a hostile reaction which makes it harder for the social worker to judge whether they are protective towards their children. “The way they [professionals] do their job is crucial to maximise the chance of women working through the shock,” she says.
Alcock has devised a tool that could help social workers to understand the dynamics of the family in abuse cases. She created the diagram, in the form of a wheel, when working as a counsellor at the NSPCC and training counsellors for the charity Healing Our Past Experiences (Hope), a self-help service for victims and partners of abusers. In counselling the wheel can help partners understand the ways in which abusers manipulated them and the child. It could also help social workers assess the level and type of control exerted by the abuser over mother and child. “If they understand the power issues they will gain a more in-depth and accurate assessment,” she says.
She also believes it is very important that mothers of child abuse victims receive counselling alongside the assessment of the family by social workers. Counselling will help mothers to accept and understand with what has happened, repair the relationship with their child and therefore make it easier for social workers to assess their ability to care for their child. “The child’s future welfare is connected to their mother’s ability to move through this effectively,” she says.
Alice Newman, principal practitioner at the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, says Alcock’s wheel could be a useful tool for practitioners as they help mothers work out how the abuser operated in their family. Newman says many of the care order cases she handles seem to have grown out of poor relationships between social workers and mothers which can begin with apparently judgemental questioning.
“If mothers had this help early on maybe children’s services would not have to go for interim care orders ,” she says.
* Name has been changed
Denise Alcock runs Fourth Dimension Training and teaches at the Centre for Employability and Professional Skills at Hull University. Contact her at email@example.com.
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This article is published in the 7 October 2010 edition of Community Care magazine under the headline Assessing the Victims of ‘Double Abuse’