Newcastle is home to a project that is helping women, whose partners have abused children, to better safeguard their own
Chrissie* takes a carefully preserved newspaper cutting from an envelope, unfolds it with a certain satisfaction. It is about the trial and sentencing of her former partner, Sean*. Even though no charges were brought against him for the alleged sexual abuse of their then three-year-old daughter, Chrissie gains some satisfaction from the knowledge he is serving two years for threatening behaviour in a different case.
When police questioned Sean over the alleged sexual abuse, Chrissie was taken to a women’s refuge, while their daughter went into temporary foster care. Returning to collect clothes, Chrissie found that their house had been ransacked by neighbours; what they could not destroy they had stolen. The ceilings had been deliberately damaged so the rain could flood in. The neighbours said they wanted to wreak their revenge on Sean.
Chrissie says: “I just cannot wait ’til he’s six feet under. I would go to his funeral just to make sure he was buried and that would be the only reason.”
Rachel’s* husband, Tom*, served 16 months of a 32-month sentence for accessing hundreds of horrifying images of children on the internet, including images of torture and sexual violence. A few days after Tom was charged, Rachel went as usual to her church in the small town where she lives. At the end of the service, she asked everyone to stay behind and told her fellow parishioners what had happened. Now, Tom has been released from prison and Rachel has welcomed him back into their home to re-make their lives with their two children.
“I wanted us to be a family again,” Rachel explains. “It’s just, what do you believe about this person? Do you believe they have done this awful thing? Absolutely, yes! I could have walked away, I could still walk awayIf Tom had laid hands on Matthew, Beth [her stepchildren], Mark or Sarah [her and Tom’s children] I wouldn’t feel like this and I wouldn’t be making this decision. And if there was any suggestion of repetition, then I wouldn’t be sticking around.”
These two cases illustrate the extremes of the spectrum of responses of women whose partners have sexually abused children or been convicted of a related crime. Afterwards, while most want as little as possible to do with their partners, some will try to rebuild their lives with the offender.
Either way, there are few services available for this group of women, whose needs are frequently dismissed or overlooked. They are often guilty by association, yet they are frequently victims too.
Women whose partners are child sex offenders suffer emotional conflict and confusion; they lose confidence in themselves and often blame themselves for what has happened. Any love and trust the woman felt for her partner is undermined, often destroyed. She may lose income, her home, and even her children if they are taken into care. And she can lose her sense of identity as a good and protective mother.
In addition, these women have to face friends and neighbours who will not always be supportive and are sometimes openly hostile. They will also have to cope with the needs of their children, who may have been abused themselves or, at the very least, are living with the knowledge and consequences of their father’s or mother’s partner’s actions against another child.
Where partners do return home, women take on a child protection and policing role. Their mere presence – at the shops, on the school run, out and about generally – avoids unjustifiable accusation. They offer company where there is social isolation, security against mistaken suspicion, emotional support when the offender is depressed, and ongoing support during any treatment programme.
The Partners for Protection programme, in Newcastle, jointly run by Barnardo’s Mosaic project and the Sexual Behaviour Unit at the Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland NHS Mental Health Trust, provides a service targeted at this group of women. Through its group work, it assesses the ability of women whose partners have offended to better protect their children.
The course runs one day a week over eight weeks. Many of those who attend find it a positive experience, even if they initially don’t think it will be and only agree to go because of local authority concerns about their ability to protect their children.
Anecdotal evidence from women who complete the course is that their insight, both as mothers and as individuals, increases, as does their self-assurance, self-confidence, and their belief in their ability to protect their children. They become more aware – in some cases, for the first time – of the stratagems of offenders, and feel better able to guard against it.
Interviews with seven of these women for a book on understanding the partners of child sex offenders reveal that four were themselves victims of child sexual abuse. For two of these, the abuse lasted into adulthood. This supports existing evidence of a disproportionate number of mothers whose children have been abused who have been abused themselves as children.
Whatever the response of a woman to learning that her partner has sexually abused a child or been involved in a related crime, a project like the Partners for Protection programme, attuned to the women’s complex and specific needs, will at least allow them to share their experiences, better protect their children, and feel slightly less alone.
* Names have been changed
Terry Philpot is the author of Understanding Child Abuse. The Partners of Child Sex Offenders Tell Their Stories (Routledge).
Case Study: ‘I am proud of getting this far in my life’
Karen* is 23 and comes from a family with a long history of sexual abuse. What she learned about her partner, who had sexually abused his cousin, may have awakened memories of her past. She has spent time in care and remains close to her foster carer. She has two small children, both of whom have also been in care.
“I don’t so much say it’s the professionals that have helped me to decide what I want to do. I think it’s looking at other people’s lives, backgrounds and how difficult it is for other people. I would like to help other people with abuse because I know I’ve suffered it and I have come through it. I would like to be able to have that impact on somebody else.
“Me own life experience sort of brought me to realise where I am with me life, where I want to be with me future and me children and I sort of gained a lot of experience from me ex-foster carer because I see her a lot. She’s very much a support to me and she’s even asked herself if she could have adopted me.
“Looking back on me own life over the last 23 years, I have been through a lot to get where I am today. I’m proud that I have been able to get this far because, I guess, at the beginning I kind of believed, or sort of put it into me own head, that I wasn’t going to get anywhere in life, it was just going to get worse. I got to the situation where it was, ‘Why does it keep happening to me? What am I doing so wrong to make my life so bad?’ And I think all that just fitted into, ‘You need to do something with your life – change it.’
This article is published in the 30 July 2009 edition of Community Care magazine under the headline Learning to Protect