The Hidden Trauma Faced by Partners of Online Child Sex Offenders
22 January 2018 at 8:43 am
Natalie Walker is the founder of PartnerSPEAK, a peer support organisation for people whose partners have viewed child abuse material. She is this week’s Changemaker.
Walker was still young when she found out her then-husband was accessing child abuse materials on his computer.
The associated trauma and lack of support that followed compelled her to offer peer support to other non-offending partners of online child sex offenders.
This eventually developed into the creation of PartnerSPEAK, a multi-faceted organisation which supports traumatised partners and provides information, advice and advocacy.
In 2017, Walker was announced as a recipient of the Churchill Fellowship, allowing her to “explore peer support as a trauma-informed response to the families of online child sex offenders”.
In this week’s Changemaker, Walker explains the long process involved in founding PartnerSPEAK, why the stigma needs to be removed around non-offending partners, and why a voice message from her two-year-old son made her realise the impact her work was having.
What led you to found PartnerSPEAK?
In 2002 I discovered that my then-husband was accessing child abuse material. We had recently moved to Melbourne and all his mates had come to stay for the weekend and one of them regularly serviced our computer. He took me aside and said “Natalie everybody knows that there’s always lots of porn on his computer but this time I found something else, it’s children”. I was really young and there was no one that I knew who’d had that experience. And when I tried to seek counselling, practitioners were overwhelmed and didn’t know what to do with us and I was unable to access any meaningful support.
Then two years later in Australia we had Operation Auxin, and 200 men were charged with [accessing] child abuse material in Australia. The media kept on naming the wife of one of the men who was charged. They owned childcare centres together and they kept naming her in the paper. She was never investigated or anything, her name was just there because she was the wife of the offender and I kept seeing this and reading this and hearing this and thinking “someone’s going to do something about this”. And it was only [about] two years on from my experience and I was really struggling with those media reports personally.
I was still traumatised by my own experience. And then I didn’t see anyone responding so I made a few calls. I was in the community sector, so I had an idea and I made some calls to some key agencies and appropriate government departments. And nobody knew what I was talking about. In 2004 we weren’t used to seeing the offence reported on and people were still confused by what that meant. And so when I tried to talk about partners and wives no one had any idea. So from 2004, for about nine years, I just had a forum on the internet and if anyone somehow managed to find it, it was just Natalie Walker responding back to them offering peer support.
In 2012, a smaller child abuse material ring was exposed where I was living at the time, in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne. And I thought “Oh surely someone’s done something about this by now”. But I had a Google and no one had. So I wrote a really small opinion piece for a very tiny, independent online publication and they published it straight away and the local media picked it up. And I realised in the years that had passed from 2004 to 2012 that something had changed. And so I quickly got a website up and decided that the time was right to found PartnerSPEAK properly in 2012.
What does PartnerSPEAK aim to do?
We’re fiercely a peer support organisation. So anybody who’s trained to provide support to partners and non-offending family members of online child sex offenders has some sort of mixed experience of that themselves and people tell us that that’s really transformative when they come to us and they speak to someone who has had that same or similar experience. They are often overwhelmed with relief that it’s someone that understands and doesn’t judge and knows that their offending partner completely tricked and manipulated them and covered it up.
Starting in February, we’ll be offering face-to-face peer support in Victoria. Before we had funding in 2015, we partnered with RMIT and we undertook world-first research on the impact of child abuse material on the non-offending partners. When we undertook that research, not surprisingly, people said the online peer support is great, but what they really want is to meet people face-to-face.
And that was a lot of the basis for our proposal for the service agreement we now have with the DHHS (Department of Health and Human Services) with face-to-face peer support. Obviously this doesn’t just affect families in Victoria. So there’s a desperate need for what we’re doing here to be replicated in the other states.
How do you think we can reduce the stigma around the non-offending partners of people who commit these online child sex abuse crimes?
I think everybody in the community has a role. Through our research we found that non-offending partners were traumatised obviously by learning of the offence, the fact they were living with and sleeping in the same bed and often had parented with this person engaged in online child sex offending. Then what actually made their trauma much worse was how everybody responded to them. So for the non-offending partner, the first question she often asks is “How could I not have known? How could I have been living with this person and this is the person I’m supposed to know and love more than anyone in the world and I didn’t know, what does that say about me?”
And then that’s compounded because that’s what everyone else says to her. That’s what practitioners and professionals that interact with her and then her friends and family say as well. So I think the most important things we can do broadly as practitioners of community organisations, and as neighbours and people at school who are dropping off their kids, when we find out that a parent is a non-offending partner is to be aware that the person who committed the offence, their whole life is invested in their partner and no one else ever finding out about this. Often the employment that they choose, the various devices that they have, they’re obviously heavily invested in people not knowing and not getting caught and the non-offending partner doesn’t really have a hope. She might have had a small hunch at some stage that something was awry, but she doesn’t know where to start or what that hunch might be about, whereas the other person has been invested in covering this up for who knows how long.
And so we need to know this when talking to others that non-offending family members are secondary victims in all of this. And the families we work with, the reason they’re so broken is because they know more than anyone that the true victims are the children in the images and the videos and that’s why they’re so traumatised. The non-offending family members are collateral damage and we’ve got a part to play in standing with them and responding with compassion like we do with anyone else who experiences a traumatic experience instead of blaming them.
You mentioned the commencement of face-to-face peer support in Victoria soon. How else would you like to see PartnerSPEAK develop in coming years to make it a more supportive service to help these victims?
The face-to-face peer support is a pilot in Victoria. What we need is federal leadership [because] families affected by child abuse material are in some of our national 10 years plans. These peer support offerings… are some of the programs we offer in every state, like we offer mental health services and domestic violence services.
Then as well, at the moment our face-to-face peer support group is for de-briefing the experience but people are also asking for practical peer support and mentoring, like someone to go with them to the police station or to understand what happened in court or to access other services. So we want an extension of the support groups that we have here, [to provide] practical mentoring and for that to be replicated in every state.
How do you balance running PartnerSPEAK with your home and family life?
Last year I was running home late for my children and I had a missed call from my two year old. I was on a busy tram and as soon as I saw the missed call I felt guilt that the kids were wishing I was home, that they’re waiting for me, and I felt guilt with the juggle of being a changemaker and being a conscious intentional parent as well. And I listen to the message and it was my two-year-old son and all he said was “Mummy when I’m big I’m going to help mummies and babies just like you” and I burst into tears on the tram and realised that sometimes the juggling is working and that my children understand the work that I do and the impact that I have on other families.
And on Sunday at 7:30 in the morning, my four year old and two year old came to Coles with me to buy water and snacks for volunteers of PartnerSPEAK who were going to be on a stall for a festival and they were really proud. My four year old has volunteered herself and they felt like they were helping out and making a difference and so I think what’s difficult is when we don’t integrate our personal and professional lives. And then there’s always conflict, when we see our personal and our professional as being two sides of the same coin of effecting change. It never completely obliterates the conflict and I don’t want to simplify things for working parents. But there is more capacity when we do that.
Do you have a proudest achievement that has come from all the work you have done with PartnerSPEAK?
My greatest flaw as a not-for-profit leader is not spending enough time reflecting and sometimes our volunteers say to me “wow that’s amazing. Are you proud of that?” And I’m like “What, hang on, we’re onto the next thing now”. Something that took me by surprise last year was when I came across the Churchill Fellowship and I read the criteria and realised that potentially I fit them. So we’ve only been funded since July and I had been working voluntarily. [When I] founded PartnerSPEAK… in the beginning I thought my role would be to agitate and to tell other services that this is an issue and that maybe an existing women’s organisation would take on the cause. I didn’t envisage that I would become CEO of PartnerSPEAK.
And in those 13 years I’ve accidentally become the person in Australia who knows the most about the impact of child abuse materials on the non-offending partners and family members. And when I sat down to write my Churchill Fellowship application, regardless of whether I was successful, which I ended up being, it was a big realisation that I’ve been agitating and advocating for all these years and the information that I have accrued and the knowledge I’ve accrued to enable me to do that, has actually given me a sound knowledge base that perhaps not many people in Australia or the world have. And to achieve the Churchill Fellowship confirmed that for me. So at the end of this year I am going to the [United] States to visit the people who founded the intentional peer support model that we use.
And then I am going to Christchurch to visit Aviva, which is a family violence service that has applied the IPF model to a domestic violence setting. And so I’ll be able to bring that back for PartnerSPEAK and the work that we do with families of online child sex offenders. But I also hope to bring it back to domestic violence services who are interested in offering peer support to people who experience all types of domestic violence.