Nonoffending Parents of Maltreated Children Essay

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Nonoffending parents of maltreated children are those parents who do not actually commit the abuse against the child, but who are responsible for protecting the child after the abuse. For example, when a child is physically abused by a mother, the father is the nonoffending parent. The majority of literature on nonoffending parents is written about parents of sexually abused children. Sexual abuse is different from other types of child maltreatment in that the vast majority of offenders are male and nonoffending parents are female.

Because of the disproportionate representation of the poor in child welfare, there is also an overrepresentation of poor single mothers. This overrepresentation and the historical bias of considering the mother primarily responsible for the child also contribute to the emphasis by child welfare on nonoffending mothers rather than on nonoffending fathers. Thus, when a child is sexually abused, regardless of whether a mother or father figure is available, the mother is typically assumed to be responsible for the ongoing care, protection, and support of the child.

Nonoffending Mothers And The Early Literature

The historical understanding of the nonoffending mothers’ responses to their children’s sexual abuse was profoundly influenced by Freudian psychoanalytic theory. To understand how this theory conceptualized mothers, it is helpful to understand how it conceptualized the victim, assumed to be the daughter. Psychoanalytic theory assumed that the daughter seduced her father and then actively participated in the ongoing abuse. Not coincidentally, the mother was assumed to set up the dynamics for the abuse, know about the ongoing abuse, and even allow it to continue. Again, the rationale for this belief system was that the abuse occurred more than one time. Clinicians simply could not understand how the abuse could happen more than one time without the active participation of the child and the active or passive encouragement of the mother.

As theories of human behavior moved away from an intrapsychic (psychoanalytic) perspective in the last half of the 20th century, incest began to be framed within a family systems framework, with the mother being considered the center around which a dysfunctional family system evolved. Again, she was purported not only to set up the dynamics for the abuse but also to contribute to its continuation because of its purported gain for her. Of course, today it is understood that this belief is not the case, but the historic bias against nonoffending mothers of sexually abused children lingers in some areas.

Possible Effects Of Early Literature

How much this literature contributed to the belief system of Child Protective Services workers is not known, but what is known is that during this same period of time, child welfare workers appeared to maintain a belief system that the mother was as much to blame for the abuse as the father or perpetrator and that she knew about the ongoing abuse. This belief system may continue, as approximately half of sexually abused children are removed from their homes by Child Protective Services within the first year following the abuse disclosure, and approximately two thirds to three fourths are removed by the end of the second year. For these children to be removed, the nonoffending parents would have to be considered incapable of providing appropriate support and protection to their children. Indeed, in just less than half of all cases of substantiated sexual abuse, mother figures are categorized by Child Protective Services as sexual offenders. In cases of parental incest, over half of mothers are categorized as sex offenders. In comparison, in the more accurate random prevalence studies of child sexual abuse, less than 1% of all sexual abuse is committed by mothers. The inevitable conclusion is that Child Protective Services is categorizing extraordinarily more mothers as being involved in the sexual abuse than actually occurs.

Recent Understanding Of Nonoffending Parents

A more holistic understanding of nonoffending parents has emerged in recent years. Many researchers and clinicians recognize the contexts within which the nonoffending parent and victim reside and the complex systems with which they interface. Not only are multiple dynamics occurring within the family, but also families are responding to a Child Protective Services system that is making increased demands upon the family. Nonoffending parents may experience Child Protective Services, as well as other systems designed to support the welfare of the abused child, as hostile to them and to the structure of their family. Further, nonoffending parents may be experiencing their own traumatic responses after finding out that their child was sexually abused.

Even in this enormously difficult environment, most nonoffending parents respond with partial or full support of their children after disclosure. This important finding suggests that most nonoffending parents are capable of and motivated to support their children. Other important studies have found that parental support is amenable even to brief treatment and education. Finally, there is emerging evidence that working with both the child and nonoffending parent in treatment is associated with important reductions in symp toms in children and parents and is also associated with increased parental support.

These emerging findings suggest that Child Protective Services may be able to work more closely and flexibly with nonoffending parents with the hope that eventually more sexually abused children may remain safely in their homes with their nonoffending parents. Doing so is important for helping these children to maintain their very critical attachments with their nonoffending parents while averting the enormous trauma of the rupture of these attachments. Thus, it is hoped that emerging trends in the literature will provide a more holistic understanding of responses of nonoffending parents while also providing enhanced support for the parents and their children.


  1. Bolen, R. M. (2001). Child sexual abuse: Its scope and our failure. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Press.
  2. Elliott, A. N., & Carnes, C. N. (2001). Reactions of nonoffending parents to the sexual abuse of their child: A review of the literature. Child Maltreatment, 6(4), 314–331.

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