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University of Iowa News Release


May 3, 2007

UI Professor Looks At Moms' Role In Protecting Kids From Sex Abuse

A University of Iowa professor is studying how social workers determine whether a mother failed to protect her child from sexual abuse after learning about the abuse.

Carol Coohey, an associate professor in the School of Social Work in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, analyzed 93 Child Protective Services case files from one Iowa county. She found that investigators consider two factors key when deciding how to handle a case: whether a mom consistently believed the abuse occurred, and whether she consistently took steps to protect her child, like keeping the child away from the abuser, reporting the abuse, taking the child to a doctor, and cooperating with police.

Coohey discovered that mothers who did not consistently take such steps to protect their child were 81 times more likely to be "substantiated" -- determined by investigators to have failed to protect a child from sexual abuse or the imminent threat of sexual abuse. When a mom is substantiated, social service agencies intervene to protect the child, often requiring the mother to follow rules like keeping the child away from the abuser, or in some cases removing the child from the home. Moms who wavered in their belief that the abuse occurred were 23 times more likely to be substantiated.

The research, published in the most recent issue of the Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, appears in an article titled "How Child Protective Services Investigators Decide to Substantiate Mothers for Failure-to-Protect in Sexual Abuse Cases." Coohey analyzed cases that occurred over a four-year period, including 31 in which the mother was substantiated and 62 in which the mother was not.

She believes her findings could be used by states to review and clarify criteria on what evidence is needed to establish that a caregiver failed to protect a child. Iowa has "clear, detailed" guidelines for investigators to use when making decisions in these types of cases, but many states lack clear guidelines, which allows biases about a mom's race, beliefs or economic status to creep into the decision, Coohey said.

"I think that our state did a very good job in consistently applying their criteria," Coohey said. "I think they're making fairly good decisions about which families need intervention. In cases where mothers were substantiated, their children appeared to be at risk for re-victimization."

Moms dealing with at least one of three challenges -- a substance abuse or mental health problem, or battery -- were 14 times more likely to be substantiated.

"It's likely that investigators believe these challenges interfere with a mother's ability to protect her child in the future," Coohey said. For instance, if a mother's partner is both her batterer and the child's' abuser, the investigator might believe the mother is afraid of her partner and unable to keep the abuser away from the child.

Investigators also took into account whether moms knew about the abuse from multiple sources. For each additional source of information a mother had, such as physical evidence, witnessing the abuse, or knowing the abuser had a history of abusing children, the likelihood of substantiation increased 6.5 times.

"You can infer that if three different people told her, she definitely knew," Coohey said. "So investigators are more confident in substantiating her."

Coohey found that mothers who were more cooperative during the investigation were less likely to be substantiated. Supportiveness also influenced investigators' decisions on whether to substantiate. A mom who was less supportive of the child was twice as likely to be substantiated. Supportiveness was measured by several factors, such as whether the mother was angry at the child, whether she blamed the child, whether she minimized the abuser's behavior, whether she seemed concerned about how the abuse impacted the child, and whether she sought counseling for the child without being prompted by investigators.

Reliance on investigator reports was a limitation of the study. The reports didn't always include important variables -- including whether a perpetrator was incarcerated and no longer had access to the child -- which could have influenced an investigator's decision not to substantiate a mother.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

CONTACTS: Carol Coohey, 319-335-1272,; Nicole Riehl, 319-384-0070,