Practitioners may be the first person to speak to a parent about concerns that their child may have been sexually abused, or is at significant risk of sexual abuse. Never underestimate how important that conversation is and the difference you can make. At times, practitioners may hold concerns without clear physical evidence or a purposeful disclosure from the child.
Begin safety planning and risk assessment with the aim of helping the parent to fully believe their child is at risk. Practitioners may want the parent to immediately say and do things to protect their child. This is understandable, but not necessarily realistic for a parent who is still processing and coming to terms with information which may change their life and their relationships irrevocably. If the alleged abuser lives in the family home or is part of the extended family network, the parent may experience significant internal conflict about how they should respond to the disclosures of abuse.
This part provides practical ideas for work with parents that will help them to respond protectively to their child.
Consider the following when preparing to work with the parent:
- How has the process of coercion resulted in gaining access and opportunity to a child by alleged abuser shaped the parent’s perception of the abuse and their relationship with their child?
- What could be triggering a certain response in a parent?
- Are there acts of protection shown by a parent that can be built upon to create a safe environment for a child?
- Does there need to be a full acknowledgment of guilt of an alleged abuser or offender for a parent to act protectively?
- Are there other issues occurring in the family that are influencing the parent’s response?
Throughout this part, the terms ‘alleged abuser’ and ‘man’ are used interchangeably. This reflects the fact that the overwhelming majority of alleged child sexual abusers are men. It is however, recognised that sexual abusers can be female female.
New South Wales Office of the Senior Practitioner Child sexual abuse What does the research tell us? A literature review (2016), Chapter 4, for more information on women who sexually abuse children.
Understand the parent’s experience
Nine out of ten female victims and eight out of ten male victims of sexual abuse knew the offender/person who abused them (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2005). For parents, this means that a report about the sexual abuse of their child is likely to affect or the parent will experience loss in their relationships with family, friends, other trusted adults, their finances, and their identity.
Researchers examined and described common reactions of parents (predominantly mothers) who discovered that their child has been sexually abused (NSW Health Education Centre Against Violence, 2013). The way that a parent experiences and responds to their child’s disclosure, or information about the risk of sexual abuse, is varied and complex. A parent will often fluctuate between doubt and belief or minimising the abuse and the abuser's responsibility for the abuse. Even parents who are generally supportive of their child can be ambivalent or inconsistent in their responses. This part can help you to empathise with and effectively respond to the parent.
The alleged abuser will likely be invested in finding ways to ensure access to a child and to find opportunities to continue to sexually abuse the child or prevent further disclosures. If a child has disclosed, or if physical evidence indicates a child has been sexually abused, criminal charges may be pending. The family may then experience significant upheaval and financial, psychological and relationship uncertainty.
The information below describes some common experiences for parents working with Child Safety because their child is at risk of sexual abuse. Some parents you are working with may have one or two of these experiences, others will have many more. The explanations below help you understand how a range of different factors can shape the parent’s response to sexual abuse concerns. It is based on information in the ‘Helping to Make It Better’ resource.
Secrecy is maintained by alleged abuser through the use of coercive strategies that create fear and anxiety for the children or parent, such as:
- telling them it was a secret
- discrediting the child or parent
- blaming the child or parent
- fracturing the child’s relationship with the parent
- minimising their own responsibility for abuse
- denying the abuse
- producing credible reasons why the allegations have been made
- threatening the parent or child. Threats can be overt or covert and difficult to see.
The parent could be aware that the child may be:
- feeling guilt and thinking that the abuse was their fault
- feeling different, ashamed, dirty, embarrassed
- feeling scared and anxious
- feeling angry with the alleged abuser / parent / other community members
- confused about whether they have done the right thing in telling
- unable to disclose or retracting / minimising their disclosure
- separated from their family because of child protection intervention or a decision by the family.
The parent could be aware that the community may:
- want to avoid talking about child sexual abuse
- not believe the risk of harm concerns
- support and believe the alleged abuser’s denial / minimisation
- feel confused about who to believe
- threaten to hurt or kill the alleged abuser
- blame the parent or child for the abuse
- label the parent as either believing or disbelieving / protective or not protective.
The parent may be:
- unsure of their child’s reliability or their developmental ability to disclose abuse
- unable to believe that the abuse could have happened
- angry with their child / the alleged abuser / themselves
- feeling ashamed or guilty that they did not recognise the abuse
- feeling embarrassed, shocked, numb
- experiencing grief and loss
- experiencing relationship difficulties and isolation
- feeling distanced from their child
- feeling frightened about the consequences of believing
- trying to cope with multiple difficulties in the family.
Engage with the parent to explore how they are feeling, and what worries or thoughts they have about the abuse, considering the above worries. By understanding a parent’s experience, practitioners can understand what supports the parent requires personally, and in order to support their child.
A parent who has just been told that their child is at risk of sexual abuse may need to navigate a complex legal and social welfare system for the first time. Support the parent by helping them to answer these questions:
- What can I say to my child?
- How can I support my child?
- What will I say to my family, friends, and other children?
- What will I say to the alleged abuser?
- What might the consequences be for the alleged abuser?
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