She-wolves in sheeps’ clothing

In New Zealand, 48% of child abusers are women. These are ordinary women not evil aberrations. Women for whom factors such as their own history as a victim of abuse, poverty and social isolation, have collided to create a parent unable to live up to the ideal of the all-nurturing, self sacrificing mother. Society has to take responsibility for creating both the idealistic image and the conditions under which women are unable to nurture their children. Meanwhile the female perpetrator is unacknowledged by society, giving her and her child victims no way out.

Radio Interview: Listen to a 30 minute interview about She-wolves in sheeps’ clothing, with Australia’s Dads on the Air. There’s an MP3 link bottom left, and my interview runs from quarter to half way along the scroll bar.

By Elizabeth Willmott-Harrop

2 September 2010

This article was published in abridged form (1,800 words) on 2 September 2010: She-wolves in sheeps’ clothing On Line Opinion, Australia’s e-journal of social and political debate.

Female child abusers are the 21st century equivalent of lesbians in the Victorian age: not legislated against because they do not exist. The nature of woman being incapable of “deviancy”, as the bigoted Victorians believed. Hence in New Zealand, the Accident Compensation Corporation was unable to accept claims from boys sexually abused by women, until the law changed in 2005. Prior to that the perpetrator of “sexual indecency” had to be male.

However statistics indicate that female child abusers not only exist, but in numbers approaching those of male perpetrators. In New Zealand, 48% of child abusers for 2006, where the perpetrator gender was known, were women. In the USA in 2002, 63% of all child abuse from neglect to sexual abuse, was perpetrated by the mother. In 40% of cases the mother acted alone.

A 2004 study on abused children in New Zealand found that children were most often physically abused by their biological parents, with mothers marginally more often the abusers, and “child abuse investigators often tolerated physical assaults on children, particularly by mothers”.

The UK’s Lucy Faithfull Foundation estimates women are responsible for 10% of all child sexual abuse and that 520% of paedophiles are women. Meanwhile in New Zealand, 40% of the 1,200 men helped by the Christchurch-based Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse Trust (MSSAT) in 2010, were sexually abused by women when they were boys. This is in line with international research indicating that between five and 49% of male victims experienced sexual abuse perpetrated by an older female.

Ken Clearwater, founder of MSSAT comments: “We live in a culture in which men aren’t allowed to be victims and women aren’t allowed to be anything other than nurturing. So abuse suffered as a boy at the hands of an adult female can be the hardest abuse of all to come to terms with, let alone to speak out about.”

Under 5s at increased risk

Numerous studies show very young children are at increased risk of abuse. According to the New Zealand Families Commission, in 2006, children under five made up 49% of all children aged 0–16 years found to have been neglected, 48% of those emotionally abused, and 23% of those physically abused. The New Zealand Ministry of Health notes that infants aged under one year are more at risk of death, accounting for two-thirds of childhood deaths each year. Meanwhile three-quarters of all child deaths in New Zealand 2002-2006 were of children under five.

As the primary caregivers of young children, the New Zealand Ministry of Justice observes that “Mothers do most of the constant and demanding care of pre-schoolers, so it should be no surprise that much of the reported physical and emotional abuse of pre-schoolers is done by mothers”.

Anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy says of the mother infant relationship: “Human infants are so vulnerable and dependent for so long a time, that the level of commitment to them by the close relative on the spot at birth, primed to care, and lactating, is the single most important component of infant wellbeing”.

Different types of abuse are more or less likely to be used by females. For example, in New Zealand in 2006, neglect was perpetrated by females at a rate of 68%; emotional abuse by females 48%; physical abuse by females 41%; and sexual abuse by females 3%.

The New Zealand Family Violence Clearinghouse (NZFVC) says that women are more likely to be the perpetrators of physical punishment of children, but men are more likely to perpetrate physical violence that leads to their serious or fatal injury. NZFVC goes on to comment that “Women remain overwhelmingly responsible for child care, offering a potential answer to why they figure prominently in child abuse statistics.”

Culture of silence

However, as a taboo subject, both female perpetrators and their victims are unlikely to speak out, with women unwilling to ask for help in a society which brands them as evil aberrations of their sex.

A 2005 study by the New Zealand Department of Corrections says that violent and sexual offending by women “has been avoided or neglected because it challenges fundamental beliefs about women as nurturers, protectors and as victims of violence…. Collectively, research suggests that females are more violent within a domestic context, that the base rate of violence by mentally ill men and women is similar and that the gap between violent boys and violent girls is closing.”

Former New Zealand MP, Marc Alexander, a campaigner for victim’s rights and a published author on the criminal justice system, has been criticised when speaking out about female abusers: “Often when I’ve talked about this issue in the past I get accused of women-bashing or deflecting from the vast majority of child abuse cases which are perpetrated by men”.

Researchers have also faced censure. The authors of Women Who Perpetrate Relationship Violence, say “We still know very little about domestically violent women… it has been our experience that political correctness is the primary culprit. We have had articles addressing aspects of female initiated violence rejected for the most spurious of reasons”.

However, Clearwater notes that there has been a significant shift since MSSAT started in 1995, when he worked with 75 men in the organisation’s founding year. Clearwater comments: “Abuse at the hands of a woman is not the dirty little secret it used to be. I can now sit in a room of women working for Rape Crisis and talk about male victims. I’ve also noticed that the language has changed. Perpetrators as well as victims are now referred to as heshe in new editions of books about sexual abuse, whereas before there was always the assumption the perpetrator was male and the victim female”.

Society accountable

Part of the reason politicians and society at large may be unwilling to address the issue of female abusers, is their own culpability in the problem. Women who abuse their children are ordinary women for whom factors such as their own history as a victim of abuse, lack of social support networks, poverty and poor educational opportunities have collided to create a parent unable to live up to society’s ideals of the all-nurturing, self sacrificing mother. The late pediatrician Dr Robin Fancourt commented that “The stresses of unemployment, a lack of income, the void of isolation and a lack of social support can push any adult to abuse or neglect”.

Carolyn Morell, author of Unwomanly Conduct experienced this first hand in her work as a social worker, commenting: “I have worked with poor mothers so overwhelmed by the demands of socially unsupported parenting they were unable to practice compassion towards their children”.

Fancourt saw child neglect as perpetrated by society as well as by individuals, when she said of the increasing number of New Zealand children who are bought up in poverty “these children are neglected through the many other disadvantages that are imposed on this sector of society as a whole … Inadequate accommodation, rented accommodation, shared housing, frequent moves to obtain shelter, a lack of access to a car or a household telephone, and a lack of opportunity to join in leisure activities or have a family holiday, are amongst them.”

The 2010 report Learning from Tragedy concurs, commenting that “Prevention of child maltreatment for the youngest children at risk will involve addressing layers of disadvantage”.

The myth of motherhood

Cultural notions of the female, which have their roots in the nineteenth century, paint women as pure nurturers, incapable of violence let alone intentional cruelty to their own young. To be a woman was to be a mother, period. Hrdy comments: “Women were assumed to be ‘naturally’ what patriarchal cultures would socialise them to be: modest, noncompetitive, and sexually reserved.”

Yet this notion simply does not reflect the reality of the human condition or of the problems women face in trying to mother in a society which has eroded extended family networks and isolates individuals.

Talking of the “unconditional commitment” shown to infants by their monkey mothers, Hrdy observes: “The fact that humans are primates makes the degree of maternal ambivalence found in our species seem all the more curious”. Unlike human mothers, no wild monkey or ape mother has ever been observed to deliberately harm her own baby and no other primate discriminates between offspring on the basis of infant attributes such as sex or disability.

The myth of motherhood also means that victims and society at large find it hard to disentangle the fiction from the reality when faced with cases of abuse. Consequently female perpetrated child abuse is believed to be vastly underreported.

Loving abusers

Furthermore female perpetrated abuse is often conducted in the context of an affectionate and loving relationship which children dare not risk losing. Studies into childhood sexual abuse have shown that young children have difficulty recognising the inappropriateness of a request when it is made by a “good” person, and research has shown that children can often feel loved, wanted and cared for by the parents who are abusing them.

A report by New Zealand’s Department of Corrections, found that “females appear to molest younger children, particularly ones they assume a care giving role for” and “appear to use persuasion rather than force or threats”.

This makes it almost impossible for the child to assimilate what is happening to them. As Alexander observes: “Improper sexual behavior by women is grossly under-reported, partly because children are scared of saying anything against the main nurturer in the home but also because it can so easily be hidden in caring activities such as bathing, dressing or consoling the victim”.

A report by the UK’s leading child protection charity, the NSPCC, says: “Maternal perpetrated abuse emerges as a particularly damaging form of sexual abuse … (taking) subtle as well as overt forms. This can cause particular difficulties for child welfare professionals in identifying some abusive situations, thus underlining the need for professionals to be open to the possibility that females, as well as males, may sexually abuse children and to be aware of the ways abuse might manifest itself”.

The conflict between loving and abusive, appropriate and inappropriate is reflected in a 2005 study about maternal experiences of childhood of Pacific Island mothers in New Zealand which concluded that “abusive and supportive behaviours co-exist; physical abuse being recalled more strongly than emotional abuse, and mothers seeming both more abusive and more supportive than fathers”.

Women who have intimate relationships with teenage boys often claim they were in a loving partnership. The media glamorises its reporting with headlines such as “Blonde, attractive, successful and having sex with teens”, further fueling a culture in which female perpetrated abuse is not taken seriously. New Zealand dancer Aaron Gilmore was sexually abused from the age of 12 by a woman 23 years his senior. But when he told police he had been sexually abused by a woman, the police officer said “I’m failing to see a crime here.”

Clearwater comments: “Men have a ‘what are you complaining about’ mentality which says if you have a sexual experience with an adult woman as a boy, you should be grateful. That attitude is just no longer good enough”.

The fact remains that consensual exchanges, be they emotional or sexual, between a child or young person and an adult are always abusive because the perpetrator has a power imbalance with their victim. Both by virtue of their age or position, and because the victim is not sufficiently mature to make an informed decision about what is happening to them.

Like the older women who sexually abuse teenage boys by having a ‘loving relationship’ with them, mothers conducting other forms of abuse will very often not recognise they have done anything wrong. From cultural and religious notions that physical discipline is “loving guidance” to the emotionally abusive mother who claims her “only crime is loving the child too much”.

Particularly challenging are subtle but pervasive forms of emotional abuse within an otherwise loving relationship, such as “using children as confidants, using children to get or give information to the other parent, being inconsistent, shaming children”. Or which are made by an emotionally needy and vulnerable parent wanting love and support from the child, such as discussing suicide or as Fancourt says, where behaviour conveys to the child that they are “only acceptable in the context of meeting another’s needs”.

The child remains trapped in a netherworld, potentially only recognising abuse decades later. Fancourt, in her report on neglect and psychological abuse in childhood, makes the point well when she speaks of “the rare ability of children to conceptualise, comprehend, or verbalise what is happening due both to their developmental barriers and as a result of these forms of maltreatment being the expected background of family life for which they have no comparisons.”

When they find out about the abuse, other family members can perpetuate a culture in which children are forced to take responsibility for the behaviour of their caregivers by asking “why didn’t we know”, thereby pushing the responsibility back onto the (then) child.

Victim as abuser

While the majority of child abuse is perpetrated by males, the focus and stereotypes around male perpetrators mean female perpetrated abuse is not taken as a seriously and is all-but ignored as a specific social problem.

There is a heated debate about gender parity in family violence. Many studies argue that male and female intimate partner violence is similar in frequency and severity. Meanwhile researchers such as Auckland based Janice Giles believe women’s violence is more reactive and subject to bias and selective remembering, saying “Both men and women deny or minimise men’s violence while applying the opposite strategy to violent acts by women.”

Yet one American study of women’s refuge clients showed that 90% of the women displayed aggressive behaviour toward their children, illustrating a key point which is that you can be a victim of violence and also a perpetrator of abuse. New Zealand government agency Child Youth and Family (CYF) also reports that “Surveys from industrialised countries show that 40% to 70% of men who use violence against their partners also physically abuse their children and about half of women who are physically abused by their partners also abuse their children.”

The issue of substance abuse has powerful implications in this regard. Alcohol is often used by victims of domestic violence as a coping strategy, with a 2003 study showing that 55% to 99% of women with substance abuse issues were also victims of domestic violence. And an American study found substance abuse likely to have caused or contributed to at least half of all cases of child maltreatment.

While men committed 97% of the found cases of child sexual abuse in New Zealand in 2006, girls were overwhelmingly the victims, accounting for 79% of cases. An Otago study of women aged 18–65, showed that 32% had been sexually abused in some way before age 16. Many studies have linked a history of abuse to an increased risk of perpetration of child abuse, so high rates of male perpetrated abuse have a direct impact on the future prevalence of female abusers.

These points emphasise the importance of seeing male and female perpetrators and male and female victims, as a holistic problem.

Alexander comments: “Focusing on male abusers of children while succumbing to a convenient amnesia regarding the contribution of female abusers misses the real issue of child abuse. It gussies up the problem in terms of which group of abusers we choose to identify, rather than looking at the experience of violence visited upon children. We need to move beyond our blinkered romanticism of motherhood”.

Furthermore, female abusers often abuse with a male partner, again making the two genders inseparable. This may include a mother who allows her partner sexual access to her children or whom actively participates in abuse. Family violence, witnessed by children is also a form of child abuse, and as such women who are abusive towards their partners are culpable.

Child homicide

Women commit a small proportion of family homicides, yet the statistics increase dramatically for child homicides. Learning from Tragedy which looked at family homicides in New Zealand for the period 2002-2006, found that women were responsible for 7% of homicides of “other family members”, 11% of couple related homicides, but 40% of child homicides. These figures are in line with other studies which show female perpetrated or mother perpetrated child homicide rates of between 24 and 46%.

The 2007 report Lives Cut Short which analysed 91 New Zealand child homicides from 1991 to 2000 again highlights the vulnerability of young children saying “What is clear is that female levels of offending begin to approach male levels in relation to very young children.”

The report challenges stereotypes around female perpetrated violence stating, “Any perception that women are more likely to be passive perpetrators, or more likely to be involved with deaths resulting from neglect, is not supported by the findings of this study… Both men and women are capable of violence towards their young”. This is born out by other studies, for example in Australia 13% of homeless young people aged 12 to 20 cited their mother’s or stepmother’s violence as the reason for leaving home.

Child homicides, and therefore female perpetrators, may be greatly under-reported due to the way deaths are classified. Lives Cut Short noting for example that given what is known from other countries about deaths resulting from child neglect, the total number of child maltreatment deaths in New Zealand may be much greater, saying “The malnourished baby suffering from failure to thrive who develops pneumonia and dies from lack of medical attention does not appear in homicide statistics”.

The report goes on to say that infanticide “is the most susceptible to misclassification as a death by some other cause”. Studies estimate that 5–10% of children recorded as having died from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) may have been misdiagnosed incidents of neglect or abuse. And Hrdy notes that while ‘overlaying’ used to be the euphemism for infanticide, it is now SIDS.

This is especially significant in light of the high prevalence of neglect by females, and New Zealand’s historically high SIDS rate. Out of a total of 414 infant deaths recorded in 1994, New Zealand’s Ministry of Health (MoH) stated that 29% were due to SIDS and in 2005 New Zealand had the highest SIDS rate of 13 countries. It also notes that the effect of social and economic conditions (a risk factor for child abuse) is being increasingly considered as a major determinant of SIDS.

Young and single mothers

Research shows that young and single mothers are particularly vulnerable to perpetrating child abuse. The Learning from Tragedy report states that “Young children with young educationally and economically disadvantaged mothers are at particular risk from their mothers and from their mother’s partners”. And CYF notes that “Compared to mothers aged over 25 years, mothers were 11 times more likely to kill their children if aged under 17 years”.

With an increasingly fragmented society, solo parents are often struggling with isolation and poverty, as well as the demands of their children. In the USA in 2002, single mothers were the highest category of offender in child abuse cases.

Young and single mothers share risk factors with child abuse perpetration, such as economic hardship and being a victim of abuse. For example, a 1998 New Zealand Ministry of Health report notes that women who report being sexually abused as a child “are more likely than nonabused women to become pregnant before age 19”.

CYF has identified that as risk factors accumulate, they can mutually reinforce, saying “65% of women who suffered serious physical abuse had one or more mental disorders. Experience of violence, abuse and poorer mental health directly affects sole mothers’ ability to gain and maintain employment. A range of studies have found that mentally ill mothers tend to live alone with their children and, as a result, face greater social isolation and economic problems than other mothers”.

For young mothers, 60% of whom according to Australian research do not have a male partner when their baby is born, these factors are compounded by a body which is capable of bearing children without the parallel mental and emotional maturity.

A 2006 study by the Department of Growth and Reproduction at the University Hospital in Copenhagen for example, found that increasing numbers of girls are reaching puberty before the age of 10, while a 2010 American study found that 15% of girls showed signs of breast development at age 7. Hrdy comments: “Settled living and plentiful food have removed constraints on fertility that for tens of millions of years protected anthropoid primates from giving birth at such young ages … Being fat enough to ovulate is no longer tied to having a supportive social network who will help rear her child.”

In this context, contraception and sex education play a valuable role in preventing child abuse. According to the Guttmacher Institute, every year in the United States, half of all pregnancies – more than three million – are unintended, and almost 750,000 women aged 15–19 become pregnant. And teenage fertility in New Zealand has traditionally been high compared to other developed countries.

Attachment and postpartum depression

Ruptured attachment between mother and baby, one cause of which is Postpartum Depression (PPD), is implicated in child abuse. Lives Cut Short comments “Perhaps most compelling in our small qualitative study was the number of times bonding and attachment issues featured … It is important that professionals understand the strength of the caregiver–child bond, which inevitably makes the parent more or less of a protector for the child.”

Learning from Tragedy notes that young age at first pregnancy makes mothers “vulnerable to poor attachment with their babies” and found that “Several of the narratives included evidence of disrupted attachment. These included babies who were separated from their primary caregivers or where external stressors worked against the establishment of an appropriate bond … when the parent was required to take over care again, they were unable to re-establish the relationship. No support was provided to the parent when the child was returned to their care.” The report also found that postpartum depression was reported to have played a role in infant homicides.

A 2010 study on Pacific Islands families showed that being the victim of physical violence more than doubles the risk of PPD. Again demonstrating the links between various risk factors.

PPD is believed to effect up to 1 in 4 mothers. Amanda, who suffered from PPD after the birth of her first baby said: “I felt ashamed, terrified and alone. I didn’t want to be with my baby, I didn’t like my baby, I wanted to harm my baby, and on and on. I isolated myself. I felt like I was the only one suffering, I needed to feel like I wasn’t alone”.

Support services

New Zealand currently offers universal family support in several ways, for example maternity and health care services for the newborn, Plunket’s services for families with children under five, and the Strategies with Kids – Information for Parents (SKIP) which promotes positive parenting.

However studies have shown that mothers vulnerable to abusing their children are likely to be avoiding or uncooperative when accessing these services. Also that those with abusive behaviours who make effective changes have a friend or family member on side to support them.

CYF notes that putting the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff is no longer the solution, saying “screening the population for at-risk children and undertaking more and more child abuse investigations has the potential to actually increase the risk of child abuse for many children by destabilising families and creating an overburdened system”. The agency notes that an alternative to “providing increasingly reactive services” is to approach the issue from a life course perspective, providing targeted and specialist services for families including health, education and income support services.

While the issue of female perpetrated child abuse needs to be seen holistically along with abuse perpetrated by males, there is evidence that women’s abusive behaviors have a different profile to those of males. For example one organisation noted that some women on a violence prevention programme were intimidated by female participants who exhibited more ‘male characteristics’ such as calling women weak who did not stand up for themselves. The programme was therefore not as effective for this group of women.

The New Zealand Department of Corrections in discussing gender-responsive treatment approaches for female offenders notes that: “Some issues affect women exclusively or more than men: (unwanted) pregnancy, (adolescent) motherhood, sexual abuse, sexual assault, domestic violence and depression”.

In the current climate, a mother who has just shaken her baby is unlikely to feel she can reach out for help. However there are support services available which are tailored for vulnerable women and mothers.

Jigsaw is a network of 39 organisations in New Zealand working to stop child abuse, neglect and family violence through the support, education and counselling of parents, with courses specifically targeted at women. Programmes include those based on the premise that anger with a child belongs with an unresolved situation in the parent’s life or childhood. The National Network of Stopping Violence operates on a similar basis, again with programmes specifically for women. Meanwhile organisations such as Barnados offer a 24 hour helpline and parenting education classes.

The Family Help Trust in Christchurch offers support specifically targeted at pregnant mothers “considered by maternity providers, health or welfare professionals to be at high risk of having a detrimental environment” and who are “willing to make a commitment to their children and to creating a safe home environment for them”.


Dr Mavis Duncanson in her report on Child Deaths and Serious Injury sums up the need for a range of support services and a change in attitude which addresses the various risk factors: “Reducing child deaths and injury from assault will require a range of actions to prepare parents for their role, to develop healthy interpersonal relationship skills, and to address poverty in our society. In the first instance New Zealand children need to survive childhood. Above all we need a significant change in the way we as a society value our children and young people.”

The fact is that poverty, lack of educational opportunities, a history of childhood abuse, family violence and young motherhood are some of the many risk factors which indicate a woman may abuse a child.

If we are serious about preventing child abuse, one of the most significant changes we can make is to be more open about female perpetrators, so that victims and the women who abuse them can be supported and acknowledged. And we can start to take collective responsibility for the social conditions which provide fertile ground for this hidden tragedy.

For further information

Barnados parent education and helpline O800 4 PARENTS

Family Help Trust, Christchurch (03) 365 9912

Jigsaw National Office 04 384-2363 “Where to go for help” and local services

Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse Trust, Christchurch 03 377 6747

National Network of Stopping Violence 04 802 5402

Plunket line 24 hour phone help 0800 933 922

Author’s note

Due to the controversial nature of female perpetrated abuse, I conducted a substantial amount of research for this article. This included reading 26 reports, 7 books, over 90 other written information sources such as websites and magazine articles, and contacting 17 individuals for information or comment.

Liberty & Humanity

Related article:

Misguided child protection policies increase abuse risk

Numerous studies have implicated lack of mother infant attachment in child homicide and abuse, highlighting the mother baby bond as a key protective factor for a child. Yet in an effort to protect at-risk babies from their mothers, New Zealand’s child protection agency CYF, deliberately ruptures the bond between mother and child, by allowing only a few hours of supervised contact per week.