Understanding how to support the families of perpetrators of sexual harm better in the aftermath of abuse and their role in prevention

Often times we forget about a silent but impacted group of individuals related to sexual abuse, the families of the perpetrators. I spent some time on Friday talking about this with prison staff in the context of the men in their establishment and the regularity as well as reality of visitation time; but I think that it engagement between perpetrators and their families goes much further than this one issue as it impacts their rehabilitation as well as reintegration through having a support structure on the outside. We as researchers, professionals and treatment providers spend our time discussing perpetrators, victims and the criminal justice system but we can give little (or sometimes no thought) to the family members sitting on the side-lines impacted by the abuse and how it affects their lives. It is important to recognise that not all family members want to maintain contact with perpetrators, but some do and others change their mind over the course of time and reopen potentially sealed doors. However, do we really support, aid and help the families of perpetrators? The reality of the situation is, compared to other offending populations and risky populations, probably not, no. The families of perpetrators face a range of ongoing issues and live out the experiences of perpetrators simultaneously, because:

–         Dealing with the label of having a family member who is in prison, or in the community, as a “Sex offender”. Whether this be children of the perpetrator, the wire/partner of the perpetrator having to live in the community [or the house] where the abuse happened. While not everywhere has public disclosure of sex offender information the court case is often printed in local papers and the local “gossip” machine will spread knowledge. However, no one tells family members how to respond, cope and manage with this, epically if it is coupled with the idea that they were aware of the abuse and kept quiet or that they “might be sex offenders too”?

–        Tying in with the label of sexual abuse familiarise are also stigmatised by association, epically if they decide to stick by the perpetrator and work with them. Walking away in some instances garners social support and acceptability; but staying suggests that families are sympathetic and supportive. The stigma that families can face does not recognise the complexity of relationships or abuse, it reiterates a simplistic societal judgement that does not exist for other risky groups (addicts, alcoholics, etc).

–        Quite often families, like victims, blame themselves for what the perpetrator has done regardless of whether the sexual harm was in the home, community or completely unknown. Families will carry this guilt, self-blaming and annoyance (at themselves and the perpetrator) with them while the perpetrator is in prison and post release.

–        They often receive little or no support, financial or emotional, while their family member is imprison. Quiet often these families have lost a means of finical support, either because the main breadwinner has lost their job but also maybe the remaining family member has to give up work [or reduce their hours] to care for the family in the perpetrators absence.

–        Family members are dealing with their own trauma in respect to the perpetrators sexual abuse, in that someone they thought they knew well had done this. How do they process this trauma, where do they go for help and how do they vocalise. In addition, there may be other forms of abuse, trauma and dysfunction that they may have been exposed to at the same time that the sexual harm was happening elsewhere. Who can they turn to for help, support, counselling and/or advice? Some areas have resources and support but this is by no means universal or free.

–        Given the secretive nature of sexual harm and the impact that it has, this means that families carry an additional burden of not being able to discuss the abuse or its consequences; which places them under more internal and external pressure.

–        Visitation, as already mentioned, becomes an issue as the perpetrator may be sent to a prison too hard to access and/or that because you cannot bring children, or minors, with you to a sex offender establishment means that families may not be able to visit (if they wanted to). This means that often time families are divided via practicality rather than choice. Which means that perpetrators and their families are artificially, but meaningfully, separated in a way that does not happen for other types of offenders.

–        The fact that the perpetrator, whether they want them to be or not, is omnipresent in their lives; by default, by actions and by association.  The family may want to help and support the perpetrator, but they may not. If they don’t want to support the perpetrator they may share the same surname, circle of friends and may have to see/hear/discuss them through conversations that they have with family members that still contact them (parents, siblings or children).

The families of perpetrators of sexual harm are placed in a difficult and often invisible situation. We as the providers of research, treatment and support for victims and perpetrators need to think about how we can best assist and support all of those impacted by sexual harm. In addition, the families of perpetrators of sexual abuse can hold the key, in part, to understanding how sexual abuse occurs. Generally, we do not prevent sexual harm, we respond to it; but talking with the families of perpetrators of sexual harm they may help us understand some of the key warning signs better, help us better understand grooming techniques, help us better understand the methods that perpetrators use to hid their abuse, help us identify key moments or perpetrators behavioural shifts better. The families of perpetrators of sexual harm may have been present at the time of the abuse if it was perpetrated in the family , exposed to a range of related issues and often have an insight in to the perpetrators day to day actions better than most. Helping families to reflect upon what was occurring at the time of sexual harm allows us to more clearly understand triggers and warning sign which we can translate into prevention strategies that could be useful to others in similar situations. It’s true that the families of perpetrators need help to manage with what has happened around them but it is equally important that we as researchers, professionals and treatment providers can learn from their experience so that we can prevent future sexual harm.

Kieran McCartan, Ph.D