Four steps to reducing risk of child sexual abuse in the home: key messages for how social workers can support mothers

Between 2009 and 2012 I was involved in helping to evaluate a project, which sought to engage a community in the development of a child sexual abuse prevention project. The community chosen for the project was the Somali community in London. As the project developed a decision was made to focus work on supporting Somali mothers in reducing risks in the home environment. This blog summarises the key findings from this work. Although the findings are specific to Somali mothers and families the learning gained could be relevant for developing approaches to supporting mothers and families from across communities.

The evaluation of the project, which involved interviewing participating mothers, found that mothers needed to take four steps to get to the point where they were able to take action to reduce risks:

  1. Increasing understanding about abuse, how and where it happens.
  2. Accepting the possibility of abuse at home and in the family.
  3. Accurately assessing the situational risks posed to one’s own children.
  4. Lowering known situational risks by negotiating with family members.

Importantly, mothers faced challenges at each step, and were not always able to overcome those challenges. The evaluation identified several important things that social workers could do to support mothers across the four steps.

Some mothers need to be persuaded that their children may be at risk of abuse, not just informed

Informing mothers about the facts may not be enough to trigger acceptance of the possibility of abuse occurring in the family or community. In some cases mothers need to be persuaded there may be a risk. Sensitively introducing people, with whom mothers can identify, to recount personal stories of abuse can be a good method of persuasion.

Some mothers need to be provided with cognitive, emotional and social support on the four steps to prevention

Assessing the challenges faced along the four steps to prevention

Social workers need to support mothers to assess the particular risks their children face. They then need to help mothers identify the challenges they are likely to face in lowering situational risks. A plan can then be developed for how mothers could enrol the support of friends, family and professionals to lower the risks. Local campaigns or more immediate work with the social network of the mother may be needed to create a climate in which suggestions for lowering the risks can be discussed. In some cases mothers may need support in thinking about how they can sidestep explicit discussion of sexual abuse and find indirect ways of effectively lowering the risk. Some mothers may need support to deal with the fact that there is no easy or safe way to lower the risk. What starts out as an attempt to lower the risk of prevention, might with time, appear to require a child protection response.

During the assessment phase some mothers might require one-to-one or group counselling to come to terms with the possibility of abuse. Some mothers may need support to overcome the shame that can be felt when one acknowledges the possibility that abuse can happen in the family or community. Introducing the idea that while communities have values and standards, not everyone chooses or is capable of meeting them, could help. Some mothers may doubt whether they can deal with the anxiety that comes with thinking about abuse or with raising the issues with family members. This doubt may manifest in an ambivalent attitude towards the existence or possibility of child sexual abuse. During the assessment phase mothers may require space to express and work through their ambivalence and anxieties.

Coaching mothers on the four steps to prevention

Once an assessment and plan have been drawn up the plan for lowering risk can be implemented. Social workers could usefully adopt a coaching role at this stage. This would involve providing a space for mothers to report back on their attempts at implementing the plan and what the outcome is. Where the plan doesn’t seem to be working social workers can work with mothers to explore alternative strategies.

In conclusion

Social workers need to go further than providing information about sexual abuse if they are to be effective in supporting mothers to lower the risk of sexual abuse. They need to support mothers in taking the four steps to prevention. Paying attention to the emotional and social challenges faced by individual mothers is more resource intensive than focusing on awareness raising and raising confidence. However, it may turn out to be a more cost-effective method of preventing abuse.

By Mike Williams, Evaluation Officer, NSPCC