It’s a scenario common to many frontline professionals: the need to assess a mother’s ability to protect her children when concerns are raised about her partner’s possible sexual arousal to children. In such instances, questions are typically asked about the mother’s awareness to the potential problem, her ability to separate personal relationship matters from the needs of her children and – importantly – how she herself may have been groomed by the alleged perpetrator (and, if so, whether or not she recognises any such grooming).
Particular difficulties arise when, on exploration of a case, it emerges that the mother was a child herself when the father of her children started a sexual relationship with her. It may be that he was an adult and many years her senior, that she had pre-existing vulnerabilities and that he was questioned at the time about their involvement, but that concerns fell away when they ultimately married and the explanation of true love took precedence over safeguarding and child sexual abuse.
When a couple have been together for many years, have children together and the norms of family life are present, the history of a relationship can be forgotten or disregarded. The child who was involved with this man is now long since an adult, a mother and with an enduring relationship that somehow belies or negates any abusive element to their story. When concerns are raised about current sexual abuse towards children by her partner, the difficulties are truly complex as now we are presented with a situation where the mother needs to examine her own childhood sexual abuse by her partner, something she has denied, ignored or reframed for many years.
Working on these cases we typically see women with a grooming legacy that is entrenched and multifaceted. Their well rehearsed and often comfortable narrative details the love story rivaled only by that of the Montagues and the Capulets. Defensiveness is both common and understandable as the woman seeks to protect her sense of self that has been built up over many years, her family and her history that now define her as a person and a mother. Threats to the status quo are dangerous and scary. It is an easy situation for an offender to capitalise upon, drawing on the memory of how ‘professionals tried and failed to break us up before’, the importance of ‘how can you manage without me’ becomes truly apparent as we realise that this woman was a child when she met him and has known no other world for a very long time. In such instances, it is hard to see how a mother can effectively safeguard when she struggles to see her own abusive experience let alone that of her children or other children.
In her study Assessment and Intervention with Mothers and Partners Following Child Sexual Abuse: Empowering to Protect, Jenny Still highlights how there can be ‘an overemphasis on what he did rather than how he did it’ resulting in an insufficient understanding of the family dynamic (2016, p.44). Another study by Alaggia & Kirshenbaum (2005) detailed how disclosure of child sexual abuse can be significantly compromised in environments where there are rigidly fixed gender roles based on a patriarchal family structure; family violence; closed, indirect communication patterns; and social isolation. McCloskey & Bailey (2000) found that maternal sexual abuse as a child increased the risk of sexual abuse of their daughter by a factor of 3.6, an occurrence echoed in other studies (Avery et al, 2016).
Such cases reveal intergenerational child sexual abuse where a man has perpetrated abuse against a child, married her (or long-term cohabitation), had children with her and has gone on to sexually abuse those children too. So what can professionals do in such an entrenched situation? Finding resolution, ensuring safeguarding and achieving understanding for all involved is an aspiration that requires a multi-agency response that deals with the ecology of the whole family. Certainly, primary prevention can be less complex than fire-fighting a generation later, once even more children may have been put at risk. This means identifying grooming for what it is, even when the victim cannot do so.
Alaggia, R., & Kirshenbaum, S. (2005). Speaking the unspeakable: Examining the impact of family dynamics on child sexual abuse disclosures. Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Services, 86(2), 227-234.
Avery, L., Hutchinson, K. D., & Whitaker, K. (2002). Domestic violence and intergenerational rates of child sexual abuse: A case record analysis. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 19(1), 77-90.
McCloskey, L. A., & Bailey, J. A. (2000). The intergenerational transmission of risk for child sexual abuse. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 15(10), 1019-1035.
Still, J. (2016). Assessment and Intervention with Mothers and Partners Following Child Sexual Abuse: Empowering to Protect. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.