PARTNERS & FAMILY OF CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE OFFENDERS
Here For You
Women's Support Group meets Fortnightly
See www.safecare.org.au for details
Most family members tend to “accidentally” find out about the sexual activities of their partners or other family members. They often discover images of children on the computer or find picture collections in other places. The possible reactions to such discoveries are understandable, e.g.;
• Fears concerning the consequences of the discovery for the family and the partnership
• Fears of police investigations, the reactions of social contacts and neighbours, or of financial difficulties
• Worries about the safety of one’s own children
• The feeling of being betrayed and deceived, given that the partner has been leading “another life”
• Disgust, revulsion and a lack of understanding at the needs and fantasies of the partner
• Anger at the partner who “selfishly” pursues his own interests at the cost of others
• Shame and guilt for not having noticed anything before, or even fear of being partly responsible
• To feel torn, not knowing whether or not to contact the police, Family members should, therefore, be offered support in coping with the newly acquired knowledge and the conflicts that may have arisen as a result.
This can also consist of a referral to professional counselling.
In addition, family members are encouraged to seek an open dialogue with the affected person. This way they can help to promote an awareness of the problematic nature of the behaviour and motivate the person to seek professional help. This step is important because only direct talks allow for a reliable assessment of the situation and for many of the family members' questions to be answered.
The involvement of family members is also expressly provided for in the further course of therapy.
The women left behind by child sex offenders
“I used to be one of the black-and-white people, before it happened,” Katie says. She had the reaction most people do when told about a child sex offender: Lock them up, throw away the key.
But that was before her partner told her he had touched her daughter. Before the suicide attempt. Before jail. Before she moved away from their small town — because how can you stay?
And before the realisation that when the person you love is a child sex offender, nothing is black and white.
This is just one of the stories shared with The Sunday Times this week when we visited a support group of women who are the partners or mothers of men who have been convicted of child sex offences.
The women meet fortnightly to talk, cry and support each other through the kind of scenario that only ever happens to other people — until it happens to you.
“It’s the saviour,” another member, Melissa, said of the group.
“Because people know what you are going through. Everyone’s story is different, but these women can relate and you don’t feel like a leper. We’ve all spoken about the first time you come to group you are so scared and thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, what are these women going to be like?’ And we’re just normal, educated women.”
She is Right.
While the stereotype of child sex offenders might be creepy men living alone, meeting this group soon disavows that assumption.
The women at this meeting have arrived straight from work. Some wear office clothes.
They are articulate, well-spoken professionals. One is a nurse. Others work with children. They all speak of their shock that this could happen to them.
They say before the knock on the door, the disclosure, the moment their lives imploded, they had a pretty simple view of who a child sex offender was — they were sick freaks.
They never for a moment thought their partner or husband — police officers, small business owners, professionals — would be capable of such crimes.
“I didn’t see this,” Jessica, a young mother, said.
I didn’t know. And I thought I knew this person really well. Now, how do I form new relationships when I don’t trust my ability to judge people? I thought I was quite a good judge of character and obviously I am not.
While the shocking stories of institutionalised sexual abuse have dominated headlines in recent years, sadly, the true story of child sex abuse is much bigger and much closer to home.
Most child sexual assault, up to 90 percent, happens within the home and is often perpetrated by family members. But despite the huge numbers, there are shockingly few resources available for families of perpetrators. And it is often the women left holding their family together — and caring for their traumatised child — when the perpetrator goes to prison.
The Women left behind by Child Sexual Abuse partners.
The group is run by two psychologists, Janice Paige and Christabel Chamarette. Ms. Chamarette was previously involved in SafeCare, an organisation which ran from 1989 to 2009 and provided treatment for all family members, including offenders. Safecare recommenced in 2020
Since 2010, the two women, along with another psychologist Peter Dunlop, have been running groups offering treatment to male sex offenders. They then saw a need for a group for women who are the mothers or partners of male sex offenders. Women they say are secondary victims of these crimes.
Janice Paige and Christabel Chamarette are psychologists who work with women whose partners have been convicted of child sexual assault crimes. Picture: Mogens Johansen
Each woman’s story is unique, but there are some common themes — guilt, confusion, and bewilderment of how to navigate their new reality.
They feel guilty for not realising their partner was committing these crimes and not being able to protect the children. They are confused about love or have loved, someone capable of these horrific acts. And they are all figuring out how to navigate a life that has been massively impacted by someone else’s crime. Often, while their partner is in prison, they are left to pick up the pieces of their broken lives.
They soon discover this is one “how-to” you can’t find on a search engine.
“I tried to Google a lot of stuff and couldn’t find anything at all, no information, no books,” Katie said. “Any information I found was about getting rid of your partner and moving on basically. No support. I just wanted a place I could go where I wasn’t going to get judged for being honest. This has been my happy place for the last year.”
They all said dealing with judgment from the wider community had been one of the most difficult things they had to navigate.
“No reaction is the right one,” Jessica said.
If you say nothing you are seen to be OK with what they did. If you vilify them you would probably get more support from the public, but that isn’t necessarily what’s best for my child or for me.
“It’s finding that balance of ‘what’s going to be best for our kid in terms of moving forward?’.”
Jessica’s partner of 10 years, and father to her toddler daughter, was convicted of possessing child exploitation material on his computer.
Jessica says “the romantic relationship ended there”, but with a shared child she finds herself in an awkward situation. “I’m trying to find that balance of wanting my kid to have a relationship with their dad. Is that the best thing for them? Or would it be best to cut contact entirely? As the group members have seen, my thing is just not knowing what the right thing to do is.
“There is a lot of judgment as someone who chose to leave and not stays and support their partner,” she said. “I got a lot of judgment for even not leaving fast enough and supporting him in the way that I did. So, for the women that stayed with their partners, I can’t even imagine the way society reacts.”
Melissa, a mother of teenage children, has experienced that reaction. She decided to stay with her husband of 20 years after he was arrested for taking sexually inappropriate photos of young girls. She said she decided to stay for the sake of their children because she didn’t want them to think she would abandon them if times got tough.
“I took the stand that we need to support him. We’re supporting the person that he is, not the behaviour that he’s done,” she said.
The community has been less understanding, with repeated attacks on their home and estrangement from their wider social circle.
“It’s been soul-destroying. It’s like there is this big hole in my heart, in his heart. He’s so remorseful for what he has done and it’s so hard. We just have to find a happy place to move forward.” Melissa said.
But she said despite her decision, their future remains uncertain. Her family’s comfortable, middle-class life of overseas holidays and running their own business has been blown apart through no fault of her own. Beyond the shock of the offending itself, it’s dealing with the everyday reality of having been ostracised from their social circle and the financial impact of having her husband go to jail.
“It’s always going to be there. It’s the elephant in the room but it’s just trying to somehow figure out a way to move forward and have some kind of happy life. I don’t know how that’s going to pan out. I never thought this would be my life,” she said.
Eve, Melissa and Katie’s partners have all disclosed being victims of abuse. Jessica’s former partner has not made such a disclosure.
“My partner was very badly sexually abused as a child, we did speak about that in our relationship,” Katie said.
“When all this came out, he said, ‘Where was I supposed to go? As soon as I said something I would go to jail’. He said when it came out, he just planned to kill himself because there was nowhere for him to go and no one to talk to.”
When the child made the disclosure of sexual abuse, Katie’s partner attempted suicide. When he failed, he went to the police and confessed his crime. He took part in group therapy with Mr. Dunlop before starting his prison sentence.
“I have seen a massive change in him,” Katie said of her partner’s experience of therapy. “He just feels so much lighter. He said he was carrying this for such a long time and he feels very remorseful.”
Melissa’s husband has also taken part in the men’s group. She said she wishes he had got help sooner.
“It’s no good persecuting someone after they have done it, you need to form support groups or something before it happens,” she said. “So, men, if they do have these feelings or whatever, can go to someone and in a confidential, non-judgmental place, talk about it.
Because I honestly believe people change.”
But others have a different experience. Jane asks to speak privately. The softly spoken, neatly dressed, middle-aged woman finds it incredibly difficult to describe what she has been through. But she wants the public to know about the pain the families of perpetrators endure, how much the judgment hurts.
Three years ago, her partner of 20 years was arrested on charges related to historical sex crimes. Jane said she still has to take it one day at a time, she is still dealing with her shock and revulsion at his crimes. She cries easily. She said she believes her former partner is hard-wired as a paedophile and feels no remorse for his actions. She chose not to support him.
“I think it’s quite natural to feel really angry about those crimes and for me, it’s quite visceral,” Jane said. “But when it’s someone that you love who did it, it’s totally different. If you know the person it’s so much more complex.”
Because even when the decision to walk away is clear, nothing is black and white.
Names have been changed