Mother Blame

Mother blame is more likely to be an issue if the perpetrator is the father or father figure in the family. If the sexual abuse is perpetrated by a stranger or community member, even if over a long period of time, the mother is not likely to be blamed. The offender will be held responsible. However, if the child is abused by the father, it is assumed by many that the mother had knowledge of the abuse, that she enabled, that she chose not to protect, and that she may have fostered the abusive relationship to avoid sexual activity with the father. 

Overgeneralizing about mothers in incestuous family systems has been the rule in the past. Assumptions exist that mothers knew or should have known that their children were experiencing child sexual abuse prior to the disclosure. Professionals (social workers, police, and nurses) have maintained biases that mothers had character flaws, mental illness, or were co-conspirators with the perpetrator. Mothers were viewed by professionals as colluding in the incest and being partly responsible. However, no evidence supports these myths (Womack, Miller, & Lassiter, 1999).  

Mothers have been described as passive, weak, dependent, emotionally fragile, immature, and non-nurturing. They have been viewed as silent partners in the abuse.  Psychological and family therapy research from the 1970's to the 1990's focused on the dysfunction of the mother and her primary role in the abuse. She was called selfish and irresponsible and accused of enmeshment, role reversal, and overlapping boundaries. She was seen as either actively encouraging the abuse, being indirectly responsible for it, failing to prevent it, or denying it (Womack, 1995). 

Krane evaluates response to mothers of child sexual abuse victims from a feminist perspective. She discusses the view of child protection workers that mothers are responsible for knowing about the abuse and that if they did not, they have failed to protect their children (Chaisson, 2004). The impact of a mother finding out about a child's sexual abuse is seriously underestimated by professionals. The literature is rich in articles regarding the culpability and collusion of mothers and gives minimal attention to the crisis, after-effects, and need for treatment of mothers following disclosure (Hiebert-Murphy & Richert, 2000; Hill, 2001). McGee (2004) discusses prevailing literature evaluations of mothers as irresponsible, co-perpetrators, and co-conspirators.  

Negative stereotypes set mothers up as villains in the victim's life. Since maternal support facilitates the victim's healing, these stereotypes harm both victim and mother. Blaming the mother is similar to blaming the victim. Mother blame among professionals was not supported by research. Studies show that the collusive, non-protective picture of mothers is not accurate. Hooper (1992) reported that all mothers in her study attempted to intervene; however, their ability to control the situation was limited. Johnson (1992) reported that mothers of sexually abused children share a common story: their families were shattered and no one had ever asked them how it affected them as mothers.

Research demonstrates that the majority of mothers do not know about the abuse, believe the child's disclosure, and take action to protect the child. Elliott and Carnes (2001) stated that the most common response of mothers is to support the victim. Banerjea (2001) showed that all mothers in the study took protective action. Nelson (2000) debunked the myth of the collusive mother and recommends professional support for mothers of sexually abused children.

Increasing dialogue is occurring about the complexity of family dynamics, the traumatic impact of disclosure, the immediacy of grief and the role of ambivalence . Recommendations have been given to professionals that mothers need to be viewed without judgment and not be held responsible for the sexual abuse of their children. Responsibility for the abuse needs to be rightfully assigned to the offender. 

Patricia Wiklund wrote about mother blaming in Sleeping With A Stranger (1995). She discusses Kathleen Faller's study of over 300 cases of sexual abuse. In Faller's study, the non-offending spouses typically did not know about the abuse, but, when it was disclosed, they took action. Wiklund also cites reasons why mothers do not know about the abuse, and she holds offenders responsible for their actions. Child molesters are highly skilled at deception, manipulation, and grooming. They are well able to keep behaviors secret from everyone except their victims. 

Wiklund states that to hold a wife responsible for a behavior she did not know about is "outrageous" (p. 54). She draws a comparison to people having affairs. Many people have affairs for years and keep them from their spouses. Often it is said that the "wife is the last to know" because the rest of the community knew the husband was involved with another woman. No one told the wife, however. In the case of incest, only a child victim knows. She has been threatened and told lies about what will happen if she tells anyone about the abuse. The probability of the secret being told is minimal. Most victims do not ever tell. And most wives do not "suspect" that their husband, mate, partner, soul-mate is performing the most heinous and destructive act possible with her child in her home, possibly with her in the house. It is "outrageous" that the mother would be blamed. 

Recently non-offending mothers have been re-conceptualized as secondary victims in the trauma of child sexual abuse. PTSD symptoms are common (Hudson, 2003). Mothers experience stress, trauma, shock, and social and emotional consequences when a child discloses sexual abuse (Hill, 2001). The disclosure of a child's sexual abuse constitutes a major life crisis with chronic, long-lasting effects. Mothers experience significant losses. Her ability to support the abused child is an important factor in the child's well-being and resolution of symptoms. The mother's distress affects her ability to provide maternal support. However, she is the least often treated member of the family. And she continues to be blamed for the sexual abuse of her child.   


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