Responsibility Continuum

Children who have been sexually abused by family members often believe that the mother knew and that she allowed it to occur. Sometimes the child has given hints, made comments, or disclosed a small piece of information. She then expects the mother to "get it" at that point. If the mother does not ask questions, report the abuse, and move to protect her daughter, anger and sometimes hatred grows in the victim. She is persuaded in her mind that the mother is ignoring the abuse or may think that the mother thinks it is acceptable behavior. Victims may also blame the mother for not believing her, for not leaving the offender, for not giving her protection, and for choosing the offender rather than the child.

When social services evaluates a mother regarding effective parenting and potential to protect the child, they may assign some level of responsibility to the mother for the abuse. They will be looking for signs of denial and will be assessing ambivalence in the mother. Increased denial and ambivalence predicts lessened ability to protect. However, denial and ambivalence are also normal to the situation. While the mother is being evaluated by outsiders, she is trying to answer questions about the abuse and experiencing a range of emotions. Mothers often experience guilt and feel responsible, even when they had no knowledge of the abuse prior to disclosure. Common questions that mothers ask include: 
  • How could this person I love and trust do this?
  • Why didn't my daughter (son) tell me about the abuse?
  • What is wrong with me that this is happening?
  • How could I miss this?

The responsibility of the mother occurs in a range of behaviors. Optimally, the child discloses, the mother reports, and law enforcement and social services intervene. However, in some families the child may tell the mother, but, due to initial shock, denial, and ambivalence, the mother does not immediately report. The child is then not protected from further abuse. In other families the child may tell the mother, and the mother is frozen in inaction, does not respond, does not report, and the abuse continues. Some mothers are afraid of the offender, perhaps an abusive partner, and try to protect the child but are ineffective. Some mothers may collude in the abuse, knowing it is occurring and not intervening. However, this happens infrequently. A small percentage of mothers share in the sexual abuse of their children.  


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