Defining the Role of the Nonoffending Parent in Childhood Abuse

Apathetic boy standing in front of parents refusing to talkThe process of trauma recovery includes developing a narrative to one’s history, compartmentalizing who is accountable for what, and integrating old material into a new paradigm. Intrafamilial abuse, particularly child abuse, is often layered and complex. The locus of the early stages of the work tends to be the perpetrator of physical, sexual, or emotional injury. However, throughout the progression those who failed to protect slowly come into focus.

Survivors express uncertainty around the parent who did not harm them but did not protect them either. As therapists, our energy is directed towards ensuring that the burden of abuse lies in the hands of the perpetrator. Clarity and relief are common responses to unraveling culpability.

The circumstances under which there is a nonoffending parent (or community) who also failed to protect a child can complicate recovery. Clients report strong feelings towards those who did not keep them safe and express confusion about who or what this person is. “Are they an abuser? Did they love me? If they did how could they have allowed this to happen? How can you watch your own child being abused and not intervene? Is there something wrong with me?”

Abuse in its various forms can sometimes be less convoluted than the failure to act, respond, or protect. It is a complex endeavor to absorb exactly how one can avoid acting in response to someone harming a child. Professionals such as teachers, therapists, or anyone who has regular contact with children are required to report suspected abuse.

In some states, law enforcement is required to intervene on some level with domestic violence, while child protective services views domestic violence as a threat to the well-being of the children in the home. Implicit in such requirements is that there is some culpability in failing to protect. Yet defining nonoffending parents can be arduous for both clients and therapists.

Perhaps our task as helping professionals is to develop our own understanding of parents who, for whatever reason, do not or cannot protect their own children. I often find myself aligned with my clients’ confusion. While not always completely clear or simple to define, categorizing abusive acts as wrong seems more clear than failure to protect, and even more so if the person who did not intervene was a parent.

There appears to be some collective agreement that those outside of the family have a responsibility in safeguarding those who cannot defend themselves. It feels a bit more muddled in applying these rules to family members. How do we define a parent who is otherwise loving and warm but has knowledge of the abuse and does not intervene? Even if the parent is disengaged or emotionally absent, how do we work with our clients in defining them? Is a failure to act a form of abuse in itself, or is the nonoffending parent a victim as well?

The ethics of community response to failure to protect remains convoluted. In addition, working with our clients in understanding this aspect of their story is a delicate pursuit. The circumstances of the client’s story can occasionally provide the answers to our questions. Most of the time, context fosters few explanations. Perhaps in this case, the conclusion lies within the question — bemusement exists because this is a complex issue.

Normalizing a lack of clarity and difficulty in compartmentalizing the nonoffending parent or family member is difficult for all of us, not only the survivor. Hopefully, acknowledgment of the layers and intricacies of intrafamilial abuse is a starting point for all of us, and at least survivors have a partner in their journey for answers.


© Copyright 2012 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Athena H. Phillips, MSW, LCSW, therapist in Portland, Oregon

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • lark W

    lark W

    May 15th, 2012 at 4:02 PM

    I can see how a counselor could very easily line up with those who have been abused and wonder how someone who supposedly loved them allowed this kind of harm to be directed toward them and did nothing. But the thing that we have to remember, even with a terrible situation like this is that we really have no way of knowing what it must have been like to walk in that person’s shoes, were they being abused too or were they just scared of the abuser. Would they change things if they had to do it all over again. All of this is something that would have to be resolevd through some sort of family therapy I would think, and maybe there are no answers to these sorts of questions, and it must be hard trying to wade through all of that kind of mess.

  • jude


    May 15th, 2012 at 5:02 PM

    I really don’t know how a parent could EVER stand by and watch this happen.
    How can they ever look at themselves in the mirror after standing back and doing nothing?
    Yeah, I’m judgemental and I don’t care.

  • gwen


    May 16th, 2012 at 7:26 AM

    I lived with a mom who refused to see that my step dad was abusing me. I have erased her and him both out of my life, because how could she watch it happen, and I know she knew it was happening, and not do anything about it? I would never do that to my daughter. If she tells me that something is going on then I am going to believe it. I won’t turn her away and tell her she is making things up like my own mom did

  • Christina Enevoldsen

    Christina Enevoldsen

    May 23rd, 2012 at 8:07 PM

    My father was my primary sexual abuser and I have some strong suspicions that my mother knew, but did nothing. I’ve worked through a lot of anger toward her for not protecting me. I don’t believe I need to know if she really knew or not. Whether she did or didn’t know, it was her responsibility to protect me. It’s been important to my healing to work through my anger without judging it. I needed to validate it and express it in healthy ways instead of denying it.

    It delayed my healing when I tried to understand my mother. Being raised in a dysfunctional family taught me to view things from everyone’s perspective except my own. My recovery required me to stop considering my mom’s issues, her past, or the context of my abuse so I could focus on my feelings for a change. Doing so eventually led to feeling compassion for her, but not at my expense anymore.

    I’m also a mother who failed to protect my daughter from her father. Though I had no idea he was hurting her and I was his victim also, I still accept responsibility for not providing a safe environment for my daughter. She deserved better.

    My daughter and I have worked through these issues together and separately and have one of the best mother daughter relationships of anyone I know. I validate whatever feelings she has and don’t try to deny the ways I abandoned her. However, I don’t have a relationship with my mother at all. The difference is that I’ve committed to work toward health and growth so I can be the best mom I can be, while my mother walked away from me when I asked for a healthier relationship.

  • Laura


    February 22nd, 2016 at 1:29 AM

    It’s an extremely complex situation, that can occur through many different scenarios. It’s even more difficult to have any understanding of being a non offending parent, who was not aware of any abuse taking place via the Internet! It’s a very mixed up place to be and emotions run deep on many levels of feelings.

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