Female paedophiles are possibly society's darkest secrets. Reviled for crimes against nature or simply ignored as though their actions are unthinkable, very little is known about them and even less done to help them. Transition Place pioneering centre for women child abusers, but it's patients have always been too wary to give interviews. Now, for the first time, they have chosen to speak out - to Marie Claire - and discuss their lives frankly, with Jonathan Green.
To other parents Minneapolis's downtown 19 bus, the mother with her baggy patterned clothes and frizzy hair, smiling and joshing with their children, made them smile. They would grin conspiratorially at her, sharing the bond of motherhood, happy that another mother was taking an interest in their children. Yet Shelley hid a dark secret that none of the other parents could possibly suspect. "All these sexual fantasies were going through my head when I was talking to the children," she admits, in her gentle Midwest- American accent. "It was very sexual for me."
Shelley, a single mother, had her own son. He, too, had become 'not a child, but an object,' she now admits. Her maternal instincts had become warped and sexual. Shelly, 41, is not sure when it started, but it was probably when she tried to needlessly breast feed him at the age of eighteen months. She would later beat him when he refused. Over time her sexual urges became increasingly powerful and the sexual abuse escalated, taking many forms. "I would have him lay on top of me or on my breasts," she says. "I would put my finger in his rectum and suck on his penis," At this point her son, Troy, was three years old.
At first, the abuse was confined to her son, but soon it centred on other children too. She was asked to baby-sit regularly for her best friend's one-year-old son. "I had to change his diaper and as soon as I opened it, and he became playful, it began," she says. "I started to fondle his penis, then all of a sudden I stopped and thought, "why am I doing this?"
Her reasons for abusing children, particularly her son, are complex. "He was the one thing in my life nobody could take away," she says. Troy's father left before he was born. "I just wanted to be loved and held and the only way I knew how to get that was to have sex even with a kid. It was like an addiction," she says. "I felt as if I were a monster and there was nothing I could do to stop it." Although she is recounting events that happened fifteen years ago, tears roll down her cheeks.
On the banks of Mississippi in the heart of Midwest, Minneapolis is where middle America comes to purge itself of it's addictions and psychoses. Locals joke that the Minnesota State number plates, which proudly says that it is the state of ten thousand lakes. It should say it's the state of ten thousand treatment centres. Alcoholics Anonymous was started here and paved the way for Minneapolis to become the centre of not only Alcohol and Drug centres, but a world wide centre for counseling and therapy.
Inside an unassuming block in the south east of the city, which also houses lawyers and small businesses, is Transition Place, a pioneering clinic where society's ultimate taboo is dealt with. The women who are being treated there have been offered large sums of money to talk in the past, but have instead chosen to speak for the first time, to Marie Claire, out of a desire to encourage awareness of the issue.
A room of peculiar ordinariness, with an atmosphere of a well heeled dentist's waiting room, is where female sex offenders, such as Shelley, receive treatment for abusing children. One of them, Nancy, a matter of fact woman in her early forties, was demonised by the US media for encouraging her fiancé, Steve, to sleep with her 17 year old mentally retarded daughter so that she could bear them a child.
Nancy, who has got children from different fathers, has a typically complicated story, although she did not sexually abuse her child herself. She admits she felt "ugly and worthless" after a history of failed relationships. She was also terrified that she would lose Steve, because she had had a hysterectomy and could not have any more children herself. It was Steve's own daughter who told classmates what was going on and the police were called. Steve was eventually sentenced to fifty two months in prison, Nancy was jailed for six months and the seventeen year old has since had an abortion and is in protective custody. "I just didn't think about the consequences," Nancy says now.
The prosecuting authorities view these women as the devil, says Jayne Matthews, a psychologist who has made female sex offenders her life's work. She has treated seventy women since opening the clinic in 1992. When she began her research in 1985, her work was met with derision, if not outright aggression.
Challenging the idea that only men are sexual predators was not easy. When we gave talks on this to women's groups, some would just walk out. And we had problems with feminists who claimed that women were victims, not abusers.
Ruth, 48, an articulate ex-school teacher is another of the centre's patients. She reviled in her local town after appearing on the front page of the regional paper eight times for abusing a 16 year old girl who became her foster daughter. Ruth taught at the local high school and had special responsibility for looking after trouble makers. Among them was Claire, who had been sexually abused by her entire family and came to rely on Ruth as confidante. At the same time, Ruth was being treated for severe depression. Her own marriage was in difficulties - her husband worked away from home, leaving her to bring up two young children alone. Claire eventually ended up moving in permanently with Ruth and her family. It was at this point that Ruth first crossed the line.
"We would sit on the couch and she would want to hold my hand as she told me things about her childhood", says Ruth. "We would cry and become very touchy feely and then we became more involved sexually. Initially it felt good, like any teenage sex, but afterwards I would feel really guilty. I would ask her and she would say it was okay," Ruth admitted that she instigated the sex.
They first had full lesbian sex when Claire was 16. Some nights, Ruth would even leave her marital bed to creep into Claire's room for sex. I was the adult and should have known the boundaries, but being in the vulnerable position I was in, I didn't," she says. "I was enamoured with this person and this caring overflowed the boundaries. She was maybe looking for a friend of her own age and because of my own vulnerability, my mental age may have matched hers."
Ruth grew up in a stable middle class family and had no lesbian inclinations She denied she'd ever been interested in sex with children "I never bought nudie magazines or anything." She can only say now, "I guess we just loved each other." Eventually the sex stopped, but thirteen years later, Claire decided to speak out about her abuse. In a bizarre and sordid twist, it became apparent that Ruth's husband had also had sex with Claire. The case went to court and Ruth and her husband were both sentenced to a year in jail. Despite everything, in addition to being ordered to pay their victim $38,000 and coping with other legal debts, they have managed to stay together. Both have lost their teaching posts and are now working in menial jobs. Ruth says; "There is no rationalising why we did what we did. We knew we were the bad guys and it wasn't right."
According to Jayne Matthews, the women who commit these crimes can broadly be divided into three categories. One is the teacher/lover who has had unsatisfying sexual relationships with adults and finds a child whom she can mould through sex into the partner of her dreams. There are also those who are predisposed to abuse because they themselves were abused as children, and finally, there are those who are coerced into the behaviour by a male. Yet coercion is far rarer than is commonly imagined.
Most women, like Elsie, act on their own. A single mother in her early forties, she was recently released after serving four years in prison. She is clearly nervous recounting a story she knows will repulse. Her son Daniel, was ten and, like other youngsters, scared of thunderstorms. One night, he crawled into her bed as a storm battered their apartment. 'I was in a half-asleep and half-awake state and I had sex with him.' says Elsie. The next morning, her son didn't react at all, leading Elsie - who was then working as a call-girl and spending most of her time drunk or high - to wonder if she had abused him before without even remembering it.
She had a history of unsuccessful relationships and her life was a mess. 'I started taking everything out on my son even my sexual frustrations'. she admits. The abuse continued for years. 'When I didn't have anybody in my life my son became a substitute. At first I couldn't believe I was capable of it and I would drink or pill it away so that I felt it didn't happen." She saw Daniel as an equal. "He was never a child to me," she explains. "He was very much the man about the house. I don't remember him resisting and he was always very protective of me and would hate it when other men came here. A lot of it was loneliness and wanting to be loved. He was totally accepting of me'.
During this time, Elsie also had sex with a thirteen year old friend of Daniel's. Despite all this, she believes it was never a child thing she suffered from. "My sexual fantasies don't revolve around children," she insists. "All I knew was that if you love somebody, you have sex with them"
Elsie, like many female sex offenders, had herself bee the victim of abuse as a child. She grew up on a farm in California, where her alcoholic step father repeatedly raped her over a number of years, starting when she was seven. At the age of eleven, when she'd threatened to tell her mother, he made her watch him kill the rabbit she had been given for Easter , and then laid it out on the kitchen table. He'd threatened to cut her throat in the same way if she told anyone. Another time, he broke her ankles when she struggled to avoid his advances and told her mother that she had fallen down the stairs. There was a brief respite at the age of thirteen when he got her pregnant. He took her on a business trip and paid a man $50 to abort the foetus in a hotel bedroom. The abuse started up again a few months later, but to Elsie's relief it came to end shortly afterwards when he died.
When Daniel was fourteen, he was sexually molested by a stranger in the local swimming pool. Interestingly, his mother insisted he prosecute. The subsequent trial saw the man convicted but afterwards, Daniel confessed that he couldn't see what all the fuss was about, "My Mom does it to me all the time," he confided. Being caught was a relief for Elsie. Her mind no longer clouded by drugs or alcohol, she began to see the full horror of what she had done. "I'd become the monster my stepdad was," she says. "The best thing that ever happened to me was getting arrested and going to prison, and realising I had choices," she says now. "If that hadn't happened, I know I would still be doing it, and abusing drugs and alcohol, to this day. I was on the road to destruction and I was taking my son with me."
She was convicted of first degree criminal sex conduct and sentenced to sic years in prison. Her son was taken into protective custody and, to spare him a public trial, Elsie pleaded guilty. Sadly, but unsuprisingly, the cycle of abuse is continuing, with Daniel, now twenty, facing criminal charges for abusing his younger female cousin.
Elise knew she was doing wrong. At times, she contemplated giving Daniel up for adoption. "I spoke to him recently and he said maybe I didn't make all the right choices, but he understood where it came from." Despite everything, he said I was still his mother and he loved me," she says, tears trickling own her face.
Shelley, the woman from the Minneapolis school bus, was also abused as a child. She was thirteen when her father made her pregnant. The first she knew of it was when she began bleeding and miscarried. "I wanted to die," she says. She made numerous suicide attempts and her only respite was staying with her grandparents in the school holidays. When she confided in her grandfather, he sexually abused her too. She began taking drugs and drinking too much and was in a hostel for alcoholics when she started abusing her son, Troy. She began to hit him so he would cry for her attention. "I wanted him to need me," she says. "I thought, well, my dad got away with it so I will too." Finally, Shelley confessed to her therapist, who informed the authorities, and child protection officers interviewed Troy. "I thought, what would a three year old remember?" "Afterwards I say the report and was devastated. He remembered everything and even things I don't remember doing.
The case against Shelley was not enough to send her to prison, but as she began treatment and Troy was taken into protective custody, she remembers thinking, "I was bringing him up with the same abuse I had. How did it start and how did I end up here?"
Michelle is another woman who suffered abuse at home before sexually abusing a child. Michelle had been kept as a virtual prisoner in her family home, allowed out to go to church and school, until she was finally rejected by her mother who had a new boyfriend top concentrate on. At nineteen, Michelle went to live with nearby family friends who had other foster children in their care. She became close to twelve year old Jamie and her sexual abuse consisted of having regular oral sex with him until she was caught and jailed for 6 months. Now on probation for 20 years, all she can say, sadly, is that she fell in love with him.
Victims of female sexual abuse have to suffer in silence, often more than those abused by a man, because either no one believes them or they think no one will. Abusers also think that there's no help available. But of the seventy women Jayne Matthews has treated since 1985, only one has gone on to re-offend and all the women in this article categorically denied they had any interest in re-offending. The depths of the problem are only just beginning to be probed. No evidence has yet been found of women who target a number of children to abuse in the way that many male paedophiles do. But as Jayne Matthews says, "I think they're out there." "It is probably only a matter of time."
Some of the names in this article have been changed
In Britain as in the US, the abuse of children by women is a crime that goes largely unacknowledged, statistics show negligible numbers of women child abusers, yet the evidence from experts tells a different story. Here Marie Claire launches a campaign to raise awareness of the issue Elizabeth Udall, reports.
Culturally, women are seen as nature's nurturers. Yet significant numbers of women abuse their position of trust, causing a serious trauma that will affect a child for the rest of his or her life. So why can we not accept that women sexually abuse children?
Of the sixty-six thousand prison, only three thousand are women, and the Home Office estimates that only twenty of those are convicted sexual offenders. Home Office statistics show that in 1997 (the most recent figures available), one 166 men and six women were accused in Magistrates Courts of gross indecency with children. Of this, 40 men and none of the women were found guilty.
However, Eileen Gallagher, a psychotherapist working at the NSPCC's child sexual abuse consultancy in Manchester, says that there has been a steady rise in the number of female sexual offenders in the United States, and we're going to see more and more women abusing here, too. The Rose West case made the female sexual abuse a very public issue and that prompted many victims to come forward. And professionals are finally getting better at seeing it, more willing to hear about it.
Michelle Elliott, the author of 'Female Sexual Abuse Of Children' (£19.99, The Guildford Press), who works for the charity Kidscape, says, "Statistics show that it rarely happens, and if no one has reported it, then the theory is that it doesn't happen." Some of those who do come forward feel it necessary to pretend their abuser was a man. As Elliott explains, "What is disturbing is that by surpressing discussions and acknowledgement of female sexual abuse, people have been prevented from disclosing it, for fear of going against established opinion." Yet those who have been attacked by their mother, stepmother or grandmother are some of the most damaged people she has ever seen.
ChildLine reports that of nearly 11,000 calls received over the last year, 660 were from children claiming abuse by their mother alone. The figure almost doubles when sisters, aunts and female acquaintances are taken into account.
Styal Women's Prison in Cheshire has recently launched the first accredited programme in England for female sex offenders. The aim is not only child protection, but also to understand the woman as a victim. A spokesman for the prison says it has undertaken four studies that variously estimated that between 50 and 100 per cent of paedophiles have been abused themselves.
Peter Saunders, of the National Association for People Abused in Childhood, estimates that around 10 percent of abuse victims go on to abuse others. And each of those to abuse 100, to 200 children themselves, and they in turn will do the same it's like cancer. I had a letter from a woman in her late 50's with her elderly mother, who had only just felt able to go to the police about the horrendous catalogue of abuse she had suffered at her mother's hands. There are a lot of people walking around with that burden. Marie Claire's campaign to raise awareness is so valuable, the last thing abusers want is exposure, and society needs to take every aspect of this issue on board. So much more can be done to make the world a safer place for the children of today and tomorrow.
Julia, 32, was abused by her babysitter when she was small. Here, she tells Sharon Mayers how she coped with her ordeal.
"I don't remember much about my childhood, but my memories of the encounters with the 18 year old babysitter who sexually abused me are still vivid. My mother trusted her implicitly and she babysat for us several times a month from as far back as I can remember. We always thing of sex offenders a oddballs, but se didn't seem weird. I remember her being slim and attractive, with dark, curly, shoulder length hair. Her parents were close friends with mine.
"The first time it happened I was only 4 years old. I was watching television with my 9 year old brother and my sister, who was 7. Suddenly, the babysitter said, it was time for bed and took me upstairs. I had my own room, and she sat behind the door so no one else could come in. I felt frightened and confused. Out of the blue she said, "I want you to lick me"
My memory is blurred but I was crying as she forced me down. I remember the taste being revolting and I gagged. Afterwards she sent me into the bathroom to wash my mouth and then she handed me some Smarties. She spoke to me about special relationships and secrets, saying that I mustn't tell and that no one would believe me anyway. But I knew it was naughty and not right. After that "our secret" became a regular thing. I would get upstairs ad start crying as soon as she arrived, but my mother would just say, "Don't be silly."
The abuse went on until we moved 100 miles away wen I was six. I never told anyone. I assumed I'd get in trouble and no one would believe me. It was only when I was 14 and saw ChildLine on TV that I realized I wasn't alone. I told my sister, who admitted that the babysitter had also made her play games with her breasts, throwing plastic rings to see if they would land on her nipples. But as far as she could remember, it hadn't gone any further.
On one occasion, when I was 19 I had to go to the babysitter's house, by this time she was 34 and married with 2 children. She seemed very embarrassed and avoided my gaze. I felt somehow empowered by her awkwardness but at the same time sickened.
It took one year before my Mum found out. I needed to get rid of the guilt and fear and let everyone know. My mother immediately tried to ring the babysitter's family, but they'd moved away. My mother still finds it hard to talk about it. She feels really guilty.
I was lucky enough to marry my childhood sweetheart, but obviously our sex life was affected. I would get flashbacks, seeing her face, which made me feel inhibited. He was very understanding and eventually we sorted out our problems. He works for the Police Family Protection Unit and often deals with abused children, so it has given him even greater awareness.
What frightened me most when I became a mother was that the cycle can continue, with victims becoming the abusers. I was relieved when I realized that I loved my son simply as a baby and didn't have any fantasies about him. But in the back of my mind I'd watch my husband and friends to see if there was anything suspicious when they played with him. I was much more relaxed with my second child.
I still don't understand why she did it. Women are mothers., carers and protectors. Yet it goes on. All we can do is be aware and do our best.
The victim's name has been changed.
The ChildLine confidential help line for children in trouble or danger is:
If you're worried about a child or your own inappropriate responses and actions towards a child, you can call the NSPCC Help line:
The National Association for People Abused in Childhood can be contacted at: 42 Curtain Road, London, E C 2A 3NH
Kidsape, a charity working to prevent sexual abuse of children, can be contacted on: 0207-730-3300.
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