What is Expected of Mothers

More than any other factor, the identity of the perpetrator determines what happens following a child's disclosure of sexual abuse. If the molester was a stranger or someone in the community, the mother's role and abilities are not evaluated. However, the closer the relationship between child victim and abuser, the more likely it is that the mother will be assigned some degree of blame in the abuse. Mothers must present well to professionals and agencies who investigate the case although she is experiencing grief, painful emotions, and is a secondary victim to the abuse. The closer the abuser is to the victim, the more likely it is that the mother is also a primary victim to the abuse, as the abuser betrayed her trust and an established relationship between mother and this family member. 

Professionals know that the best predictor of a child's recovery from sexual abuse is the  mother' belief and support. If the abuser is a family member, it is likely that the Department of Human Services/Child Welfare (DHS/CW) is involved in the case and will evaluate the mother's appropriateness as a safe parental resource to the child (and other children in the home). See Post-Disclosure Parenting.

The child may be evaluated at a Child Abuse Assessment Center, if one is in the area, or by a collaborative team that includes Law Enforcement and DHS, or separately by Law Enforcement and DHS. A family history will be obtained. The mother will be asked questions about the family's current status (e.g., housing, employment, family sleeping arrangement, daily habits); family violence; substance abuse; history of sexual behaviors; history of mental health services; and the family's psychological health (e.g., boundaries, enmeshment, detachment, fragmentation). The mother will be asked questions about the child's history (e.g., birth, developmental, health, educational, prior trauma, social skills, emotional problems). The mother will be asked questions about the child's behavioral problems, particularly those that are Warning Signs of Sexual Abuse

The response of the mother is complex. The alleged abuser may be her husband, boyfriend, or child. The least complex scenario is the abuser as a stranger. The most complex scenario is the abuser being the mother's partner, the mother not keeping the child safe and/or allowing the abuser access to the child following knowledge that abuse had occurred, and the mother's being unstable emotionally at the time of the child abuse assessment. The mother may have a history of child sexual abuse, increasing the likelihood of mental health problems (e.g., dissociation, PTSD, depression). Most cases of child sexual abuse are very complex, because most abuse is perpetrated by family members. See Complexities in Mothers and Complexities in Victims

Mothers will be expected to provide maximum protection to the child and to support the child through the post-disclosure process. The mother's support is the best predictor of reduced long-term consequences of the abuse. At the time that the child and other family members are experiencing significant trauma and stress, and the mother is expected to be there and care for their needs, the mother has experienced a life trauma and is a secondary victim of this sexual abuse. If the abuse had continued for a period of time prior to the disclosure, the mother's identity and sense of reality has been severely challenged. Her reactions are typical of a grief cycle, and she will progress through stages of grief. She will initially experience shock and denial, followed by anger, anxiety, and depression. As she attempts to cope with these feelings, she must deal with the perpetrator, other family members, and the legal/investigative process. The process that begins at the point of disclosure may never end. Her child or children will suffer the ongoing consequences of the abuse, and her relationship with the abuser may be destroyed. 

While all these factors are present in the mother's life, she will be asked to make decisions about the abuser moving out of the home and disallowing him from further contact with family members. This request/expectation occurs at the time that the mother may be in the predictable stage of grief following disclosure: denial. Her thoughts, feelings, and behaviors may be immediately judged as nonsupportive. She may be blamed for the child's abuse and accused of knowing. The victim may believe that the mother knew or should have known, based on signs. If the mother defends herself, defends the perpetrator, argues with DHS, or is angry with either Law Enforcement or DHS, she will be perceived as "part of the problem." In an opposite scenario, the mother may have seen signs of abuse and insists to DHS that abuse has been occurring, and if the case is not founded, she may also be considered to be a "problem."  Whether the mother defends or blames the abuser, she may be considered inappropriate in her responses, potentially unstable, and consideration may be given to removal of the child from her care. Appropriate anger, however, is misinterpreted by the system as manipulation and dishonesty.

It is also possible that the disclosure occurred after the father or father left the home, and divorce proceedings were initiated. The allegation of abuse may then be interpreted as a fabrication made to convince the court regarding custody of the child. Law Enforcement, DHS, and Crisis Centers do not respond to mothers in the same manner when a disclosure has been made during divorce and/or custody proceedings. However, research indicates a very low number of false allegations made regarding sexual abuse. Children rarely tell. In long-term studies, perpetrators admit many more victims. Recidivism is high for sex offenders. Children rarely lie about abuse. The consequences  are too painful. Betrayal bonds maintain the attachment to the abuser and preclude the victim's disclosure regarding the abuse.

Mothers experience both short-term effects and long-term consequences to the abuse of child. She is a victim and needs support from professionals and agencies working with the child victim. If the needs of the mother are met, and she feels believed and supported, she will be better able to meet the victim's needs, resulting in better outcomes for victims. Professionals need to respond to mothers:
  • Providing an array of supportive services
  • Stressing that the only appropriate parental response is to prevent further contact with the abuser
  • Assist in meeting the practical needs of the mother (e.g., housing, transportation)
  • Provide consistent emotional support
  • Provide information and education regarding the "system" and what to expect
  • Provide written resources
  • Connect the mother to community support and to a support group
  • Assume that the mother is an effective parent unless facts prove otherwise
  • Provide victim services 
  • Offer domestic violence services, as needed, and other counseling services


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