Women as Protectors


Helping mothers protect children from sexual abuse

Women as Protectors helps mothers and carers who are in contact with a man who poses a risk of sexual harm to children.

With the right support, women can provide essential protection for their children. But until now that support hasn’t been widely available.

Women as Protectors provides education, emotional support and guidance that can keep the family safe. It is based on Circles South East’s ‘Breaking the Cycle’ programme.

How it works

How Women as Protectors works

During ten group sessions, lasting two hours each, this service helps mothers and carers to:

  • understand more about sexual abuse
  • learn more about why a man might sexually harm a child
  • share feelings about their partner’s or relative’s behaviour
  • understand why others may be concerned about him
  • learn how to talk to their children about risk and sexual abuse – and how to keep them safe.

These sessions are followed by ongoing individual support with a trained and supervised volunteer.

We also offer four optional sessions with the child. In these sessions they can talk about their thoughts and feelings. We help them to build their confidence and understand their support network.

How the Women as Protectors service helps professionals

Women as Protectors is a structured and evaluated programme. Through the support we provide to women, we can develop a detailed report to help inform decisions and planning. The report includes:

  • an assessment of the mother or carer’s ability to protect, based on topics covered in the group work
  • any identified risk issues and support needs for the woman and her children
  • the thoughts and feelings of the child, through the programme’s work with children.

We work with the family and other agencies to make informed decisions about the children and their future safety.

Evidence base

The evidence base

Research shows that it’s important to engage a child’s network in their protection (Wurtele and Miller-Perrin, 1992; Smith, 1995). Non-offending mothers have been found to be the best protectors of their children once the abuse has been recognised (Bacon, 2008; Palmer et al, 1999). The support of a non-abusive parent can also reduce the long-term impact of childhood sexual abuse (Barker-Collo and Read, 2003; Elliot and Carnes, 2001; Tyler, 2002; Whiffen and MacIntosh, 2005).

However, supporting non-abusive parents is often seen as secondary to the needs of both the child and the perpetrator (Pretorius et al, 2011).

Women as Protectors is based on ‘Breaking the Cycle’, a non-offending partner programme designed and delivered by Circles South East. An initial evaluation of the service, based on 14 partners who completed the programme between February 2012 and August 2014, identified a number of trends approaching statistical significance, including:

  • an improvement in partners’ relationships with child protection services
  • a reduction in the number of partners seeing children as sexually provocative

(Wager, Wager and Wilson, 2015).

Who it is for

Who is Women as Protectors for?

Women as Protectors is suitable for any woman who is either:

  • currently in a relationship with a man who may cause sexual harm to her child
  • expecting the return of a man who may pose a sexual risk to her child

This might be a current or ex-partner, someone who will be returning to the family or another family member who is in contact with the children.

We also work with the children in the family.


Evaluation of Women as Protectors

We evaluated the Women as Protectors service to find out what changed for women who attended the 10-week programme or a subsequent period of mentoring with a community volunteer, and how the service could be improved.

How we evaluated this service

We measured women’s mental and emotional wellbeing and their confidence in their abilities as parents by administering the same set of psychometric tools at the start of the programme, the end, and again six months later.

Women reported other changes they had experienced during the programme by answering a questionnaire, and gave further detail about changes in their lives through interviews.

Additional perspectives on women’s outcomes and the service itself were gathered through semi-structured interviews with their referring social workers, mentors, the practitioners who delivered the service, and a small number of children who took part in the safety awareness sessions.

> Read our evaluation report

Evaluation tools

This evaluation used the following tools:

  • Adult Wellbeing Scale
  • Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale
  • Tool to measure Parenting Self-Efficacy (TOPSE).

What we learnt about the service

  • There were distinct advantages to delivering the programme in a group-work environment rather than on a one-to-one basis.
  • Women liked the programme but were less accepting of the mentoring element and safety awareness sessions offered to their children.
  • To optimise the service, the standardised nature of the service offer to children may need to be reconsidered. The operational issues identified in connection to the delivery and set up of the programme and mentoring phase will also need to be resolved.

What we learnt about women who attended the programme

By the end of the programme, four out of five women were assessed by professional social workers as having the capacity to protect their children from sexual harm.

During the programme women:

  • made measurable advances in their mental and emotional wellbeing;
  • gained confidence in their parenting;
  • reported gains in knowledge and understanding about sexual abuse and felt better able to communicate about this with their children;
  • and felt empowered to make decisions about men who were deemed a risk.

Altogether, these changes moved women into a stronger position to protect their children from the risks posed by the man in their lives. 

The positive changes in women’s mental health and perceptions of their parenting endured over the following six months, and were sometimes enhanced through a phase of mentoring.

References and resources

References and resources

Bacon, H. (2008) Cleveland 20 years on: what have we learned about intervening in child sexual abuse? Child Abuse Review, 17(4): 215-229.

Barker-Collo, S. and Read, J. (2003) Models of response to childhood sexual abuse: their implications for treatment. Trauma, Violence and Abuse, 4(2): 95-111.

Cahalane, H., Parker, G. and Duff, S. (2013) Treatment implications arising from a qualitative analysis of letters written by the nonoffending partners of men who have perpetrated child sexual abuse. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 22(6): 720-741.

Elliott, A.N. and 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.

Palmer, S.E. et al (1999) Responding to children’s disclosure of familial abuse: what survivors tell us. Child Welfare, 78(2): 259-282.

Pretorius, G., Chauke, A.P. and Morgan, B. (2011) The lived experiences of mothers whose children were sexually abused by their intimate male partners. Indo-Pacific Journal of Phenomenology 11(1): 1-14.

Smith, G. (1995) Assessing protectiveness in cases of child sexual abuse. In: P. Reder and C. Lucey (eds.) Assessment of parenting psychiatric and psychological contributions. London: Routledge.

Tyler, K.A. (2002) Social and emotional outcomes of childhood sexual abuse: a review of recent research. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 7(6): 567-589.

Wager, N.M., Wager, A.R. and Wilson, C. (2015) Circles South East’s programme for non-offending partners of child sex offenders: a preliminary outcome evaluation. Probation Journal, 62(4): 357-373.

Whiffen, V.E. and MacIntosh, H.B. (2005) Mediators of the link between childhood sexual abuse and emotional distress. Trauma, Violence and Abuse, 6(1): 24-39.

Wurtele, S.K. and Miller-Perrin, C.L. (1992) Preventing child sexual abuse: sharing the responsibility. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.