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Child sexual abuse from the mother’s perspective

Child sexual abuse from the mother’s perspective The literature to this point has been quantitative and from the perspective of the professional attempting to define the experience of nonoffending guardians. This section now shifts the focus to nonoffending mothers as they relate their experiences of finding out about the abuse and reacting to it. A qualitative study of 15 mothers done by Hooper (1992) is the basis for this section. This section focuses on three portions of her analysis: finding out about the abuse, reacting to the abuse, and the meaning of the abuse to the mothers. Finding out about the abuse: Mothers in this study did not talk about disclosure but about finding out about the abuse (Hooper, 1992). While some mothers found out about the abuse because of a single incident, other mothers had suspected for a long time that abuse might be occurring. For these women, however, suspicions were not the same as knowing. Their suspicions were “characterised by the inaccessibility of clear information about events conducted in secrecy and uncertainty about the meaning of the information available.. .They were also often faced with multiple, conflicting and changing versions of events and their meaning, from the child, the abuser and others who became involved” (pp. 64–65). While offenders, when asked, most often denied the abuse, some children also did not acknowledge the abuse when asked or were too young to easily question. Another problem was discerning what was normal and what was not, especially when defining behaviors between a father and his daughter. Thus, finding out was a process of “‘piecing the jigsaw together”’ (p. 67), a process that evolved over time. It may seem ludicrous to some that mothers can suspect abuse for so long without actually knowing. Yet, when the process is considered from the perspective of mothers, it is not so difficult to understand. When the mother has not actually observed the abuse, when there is no physical evidence, and when the offender or child denies the abuse, how is she to know for sure that the abuse is occurring? Another important consideration is what mothers should do when they suspect abuse but cannot confirm it. Perhaps some professionals would expect mothers to report their suspicions, something some of these mothers did. Yet what if child protective services refuses to consider the case without further evidence or does not substantiate the abuse? What if the abuse really did occur? In this case, as with some of the mothers in Hooper’s study who reported their suspicions, the system fails in its responsibility. Further, the ramifications to the victim and family of a failed report or investigation make it much more difficult to initiate a second report. The other issue is what professionals consider appropriate action within the home by a mother who suspects without proof that her child is being abused by someone in the family. A first response might be to expect the mother to maintain heightened vigilance of the relationship between the offender and child, especially if the suspected offender is the father. Yet, marriages and families are built on trust. To be adequately protective of a child is to completely change the dynamics of the familial relationships. The mother could not allow the child to be alone with the suspected offender at any time, necessitating that the mother be home at all times when the suspected offender was home and that the suspected offender had no private moments with the child. And what happens if the mother is employed? Protection of a child requires total effort, for leaving the child with the suspected offender only one time might create an opportunity for abuse. This is important if the child is being abused, but what if abuse is not occurring? How much damage will the protective actions of the mother do to the familial relationships? The point is that steps the mother must take to protect her child also do damage to family relationships. At what point are suspicions enough that the damage to the familial relationships is warranted? These are difficult questions with no clear answers. Given the lack of evidence and the difficult questions that arise from a suspected abuse situation, it is not surprising that mothers in Hooper’s (1992) study talked about how confused and ambivalent they were during this long period of “finding out,” a process that Hooper termed “ambiguous, limited, and/or conflicting” (p. 569). Reacting to the abuse: Even after mothers found out about the abuse and the knowledge became public, confusion continued. Sometimes this confusion was because the mother was not given full information about the circumstances of the abuse. Offenders also sometimes continued to deny the abuse, as did some children. The desire to meet the needs of all family members also contributed to this confusion and ambivalence (Hooper, 1992). Hooper and Humphreys (1998) talk about how mothers responded to finally knowing about the abuse. While previous research had tended to describe women as either knowing or not knowing, believing or disbelieving, protecting or not protecting, our research suggested that these states were frequently not either/or, but oflen both/and, and that women’s position [sic] in relation to them was often not fixed and stable but fluctuating …. Women spoke of a multi-layered state in which quite contradictory positions could be held simultaneously, and where the certainty of belief held one day could not be predictably held on to the next. Within this multi-layered experience there appeared to be both cognitive and emotional aspects to believing that a child had been sexually abused. Most mothers spoke of their initial responses in terms of belief and disbelief, with the latter occurring as a spontaneous, emotional reaction—a natural defence against traumatic news….. This complex state, characterized by fluctuation and change, occurred against a backdrop of intense and conflicting relationships involving the child, the offender and other members of the immediate and extended family, and of the major material, emotional and legal consequences which mothers had to tackle as part of the aftermath of discovery. Mothers frequently spoke of their isolation and of the immensely hostile environment. (pp. 568–570). Thus, reacting to the abuse disclosure is better described as a process that includes confusion and ambivalence, a process that professionals often fail to recognize as normative. Instead, professionals are more likely to consider confusion and ambivalence as indicators of an unsupportive response necessitating removal of the child (see Everson et al., 1989, for example). Regretfully, mothers’ interactions with agencies in Hooper’s (1992) study were disappointing, and two themes stood out—the sense of not being heard, and “anger and disillusionment at the failures of agencies to provide help or to exercise authority at the appropriate time and with the appropriate person” (p. 132). Although these mothers wanted legal action or some other type of control imposed upon the offender, legal action was seldom taken and the mothers more often experienced the social control as being imposed upon them. Thus, mothers “often contested the degree of responsibility expected of them and resented the stigma and loss of control intervention could involve, usually in the absence of any effective control exercised against the abuser’’ (p. 132). For those cases in which legal action was not taken or when the child was removed, mothers were especially disillusioned. Mothers also felt blamed by most professionals and felt that the interventions focused on their inadequacies. On the other hand, a few professionals were supportive of the mothers and their attempts, and these professionals were especially meaningful to the mothers, who felt that they had been heard. Meaning of the abuse: The meaning assigned by the women in Hooper’s (1992) study to the sexual abuse was one of loss. Some of the losses were more intangible, such as the loss of trust in the offender and in a just world, the loss of control over their and their children’s lives, as well as the loss of family unity and togetherness. There was also the loss of their sense of identity as a mother, and sometimes as a wife, which also brought with it a loss of a sense of femininity. In relationship with their child, there was the loss of trust in the relationship, a loss of feeling needed, and a lost sense of oneself as a protective parent, as well as the experience of secondary victimization. Mothers whose partners abused also often experienced primary sexual victimization by the offender. Overall, losses were multiple, ongoing, and unremitting, with a sense of their endlessness.

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