Developing the Women as Protectors service

Value's been added to a service for women in contact with a man who may harm a child, says Trish O'Donnell

Women as Protectors launched in 2015 to help mums and carers in contact with a man who poses a risk of sexual harm to children.

The NSPCC built on, and added value to, an existing model by developing a service that works directly with women, and their children.


A service that empowers and educates women

In sexual abuse services, there are services that assess men who have a history of sexual abuse, therapeutic services for children who’ve been abused, and there are programmes for young people who display harmful sexual behaviour.

Women in contact with men who pose a risk to children, and who are responsible for keeping children safe, weren’t getting the support they needed.

This meant they could become isolated making them, and their children, more vulnerable.

There were some services that helped women play a role in preventing a partner or male relation reoffending or relapsing, but they were focused on the relationship with the man and his risk and behaviour.

A service was needed that could empower and educate women, helping them feel safe and learn about the signs of abuse and grooming. 

Introducing the Women as Protectors service

A service for these women was first designed by Circles South East (CSE).

CSE took an existing, successful model of using volunteers in supporting men with a history of sex offences to live in the community. They applied the idea to supporting women who were in relationships with these men.

Some women may have always known about the abuse, others just discovered it, and some are not fully aware of past offences and risks.

Whatever the circumstances, these women are often judged more harshly than the men who have committed the sexual offences and can become isolated because of this.

Most women feel confident they can keep their children safe, but without the knowledge of how male sexual offenders operate, they are at risk of being groomed themselves, they needed access to support information and education

Women as Protectors

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

Adding value to the service

CSE's mode was:

  • a group work assessment with other women in the same or similar situations
  • pairing a trained volunteer with each woman for up to a year

The NSPCC added value to the programme, introducing an element that helped children directly.

We offer to work with children over 4 sessions. The first 2 are just with the children (sibling groups can work together), and at the third session their mum (or carer) is present. The fourth session takes place with the child on his/her own, so they can talk freely about anything they may not want to say in front of others.

The sessions aim to help the children feel safer, pinpointing people and places they can turn to for support. This is protective behaviour work. We don’t tell them what they should do, we help them identify the best sources of support and safety for them.

At first, some women are resistant to the idea of their children being involved in the service. Their experience with protection agencies in the past may have been perceived as “interfering” and they feel anxious about that.

Once they have engaged with the service, we hope the women can see how much their children can benefit from it.

The future of Women as Protectors

The Women as Protectors service has been live for about a year, so it’s too early to talk about its effectiveness more broadly, but I believe it can make a real difference.

In the past, when women had been assessed as a safe carer, they would be left to deal with the situation alone. If they engage with one of our volunteers, they have ongoing support.

"There are complicated situations where, for example, the abuser is the woman’s son and she is caring for her grandchildren."
Trish O'Donnell / Development Manager, NSPCC

Meeting and talking with other women in a similar situation can make them feel less isolated, and the service their children receive directly can keep the family safer.

This service has also highlighted the complexity of people’s lives.

There are complicated situations where, for example, the abuser is the woman’s son and she is caring for her grandchildren.

We were also approached by the male partner of a woman with a history of sexual abuse. A different service would be needed in this situation: men and women display different patterns of sexually abusive behaviour, and Women as Protectors has been developed specifically for women in contact with a male offender.

Individual outcomes are also complex. For example, some women may decide to leave their partner after participating in the programme: this may be the best decision for her, but the man might then move on to another family.

When you’re dealing with the multiplicity of family life, there are always new issues to address, but we can learn from every situation and Women as Protectors will evolve to meet the challenge. 

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