A study of mothers' responses to child sexual abuse by another family member
This study is an exploratory one, examining the processes involved in mothers' responses to the sexual abuse of a child, and in social workers' responses to mothers. It is based on two sources of data: depth interviews with 15 mothers whose children had been sexually abused by a male relative, and records for 13 social work cases involving child sexual abuse supplemented by interviews with the social workers involved. Four key processes in the mothers' responses, which overlapped in a variety of ways in different cases, are discussed: i) coping and coming to terms with the losses the abuse involves for the mother herself, ii) an interactive process of discovery, involving others within and outside the family, and influenced by the availability, interpretation and evaluation of evidence, iii) a decision-making process involving risk-taking and the negotiation of conflicting relationships, iv) a help-seeking career in which a range of aims and inhibiting factors are reflected in the timing of help-seeking, the source from which help is sought and the mother's experience of others' responses, both from informal networks and professional intervention. The factors that influenced the mothers' location within each process are identified. The mothers' accounts of their experience of help from informal and formal sources are examined. A common theme in these was a sense of invalidation of their own perspective and needs. The sample of social work cases is analysed to consider possible sources of this experience within the process of social work with mothers of sexually abused children, identifying points of conflict or misinterpretation which lead or threatened to lead to mothers' withdrawing from cooperation with agencies. The implications of both parts of the study for theory, policy and social work practice are outlined.