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Exploring the Recovery of Non-offending Parents after a Child’s Sexual Abuse Event

Abstract

A variety of factors influence a child’s recovery from a child sexual abuse (CSA) event including the non-offending parent’s role in the healing process of their child. The purpose of this study was to gain a better understanding of how non-offending parents recuperate from a CSA occurrence. By better understanding non-offending parents’ perspectives related to the healing process, health professionals can provide effective supports, programs, and services. We recruited and conducted in-depth qualitative interviews with 16 non-offending parents to explore their risk factors, protective factors, stressors, coping strategies, and perceptions of healing following their child’s sexual abuse event. We also invited parents to contribute specific ideas to improve programs and services offered to families of sexual abuse served by a child advocacy center located in an urban pediatric hospital. Our findings included five themes: (1) a variety of emotions are present; (2) family context influences recovery; (3) coping is different for everyone; (4) navigating the justice system is frustrating; and (5) healing is a process. The results of our study revealed that the non-offending parents that were managing their child’s sexual abuse event more productively were further along in the healing process (as compared with their counterparts) and had successfully processed their emotions, described less chaos in their family unit, employed positive coping strategies, and had found a way to move forward and accept a “new normal”. The findings of our study can be used to promote recovery and provide better services to non-offending parents following a CSA event.

Highlights

  • 16 in-depth qualitative interviews were conducted with non-offending parents of a child sexual abuse occurrence to explore parents’ stressors, coping strategies, and perceptions of healing following their child’s sexual abuse (CSA) event

  • Non-offending parents who reported successfully managing their child’s sexual abuse event appeared to be more advanced in the healing process

  • Study findings can be used to develop and deliver more effective programs and services to foster recovery of non-offending parents which can in turn facilitate more positive outcomes for the child following a CSA event

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Fig. 1: Exploring Recovery of Non-Offending Parents after a CSA Event.

Notes

  1. 1.

    The vignette above was written by the authors based on a combination of detailed descriptions from our interview participants depicting what parents grappled with once they learned of their child’s sexual abuse event. The purpose of this writing is to bring the reader closer to the personal side of a traumatic event such as this and to facilitate a better understanding of the non-offending parents’ experiences.

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Authors

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Correspondence to Heather L. Vilvens.

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Conflict of Interest

The authors declare no competing interests.

Consent to Participate

Verbal informed consent was obtained prior to conducting the interviews.

Ethics Approval

Because data were collected for the improvement of services offered by the child advocacy center and therefore not meant to be generalizable, our Institutional Review Board determined the project exempt. However, researchers adhered to all ethical standards associated with interview research involving human subjects.

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Appendix A: Interview protocol

Appendix A: Interview protocol

Interview prompt Response options
Tell me a little about yourself and your family (e.g., Tell me about your kids and who lives at home. What do you all like to do as a family?) Open-ended
Tell me how you ended up at the (child advocacy center). Open-ended
What feelings/thoughts have you had most days since? Open-ended
What’s worked AND What hasn’t worked in managing the above emotions? Open-ended
What specifically was helpful at (the child advocacy center) for you or for your child? Open-ended
Did your child have a medical evaluation at (the child advocacy center)? Was that helpful/ would it have been helpful? Open-ended
Looking back on this event, is there anything that you wish would have happened differently? Open-ended
Where would you say you and your child/family are in the healing process from this event? 1—not healed at all to 5—completed healed
In general, how stressful is life for you currently? On a scale of 1 to 5 how stressful would you say your home/family life is? What contributes to that feeling? 1—not stressful at all/very calm to
5—extremely stressful/chaotic
The biggest stressors for my family are: Prompts: food insecurity, drug/ alcohol abuse, stable housing, domestic violence, job loss/ employment, grief/ loss, mental illness, child abuse/neglect, community violence, financial insecurity, meeting basic needs, parenting in general, other.
In general, how have you coped with or managed stressful situations in the past? How are you coping now with (amount of stress referenced above)? Open-ended
What strategies or plans do you have in mind to rebuild things moving forward? Open-ended
What programs or services would you like to see (the child advocacy center) offer for parents? Open-ended
Anything else that I didn’t ask you that you’d like to share with me/relates to what we’ve been discussing…. Open-ended

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Vilvens, H.L., Jones, D.E. & Vaughn, L.M. Exploring the Recovery of Non-offending Parents after a Child’s Sexual Abuse Event. J Child Fam Stud 30, 2690–2704 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10826-021-02082-3

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Keywords

  • Child sexual abuse
  • Non-offending caregivers
  • Healing
  • Recovery
  • Coping strategies