Vol. 5, No. 1 Fall 2000
the Sexually Abused Child
Donna Gillespie Foster
"No, I don't want children
who have been sexually abused. I can't handle that."
This is a common statement
social workers hear from prospective or new foster and adoptive parents.
Caregivers make this type of response for several reasons. They may
refuse to accept sexually abused children into their homes because they
recognize that they are uninformed or unequipped to meet the needs of
this type of child. They also refuse for more emotional reasons.
Just the thought of
a child being sexually abused stirs strong responses in care givers
and others on the treatment team. Child sexual abuse effects us all
in some way unless we have numbed ourselves to this victimization.
When a child already
in their home discloses sexual abuse, care givers experience many emotions,
including fear, helplessness, sympathy, and anger. Anger towards the
birth parents may prevent foster parents from
being supportive of birth family connections. All of these feelings
and realizations are sometimes too much for the prospective or new foster
and adoptive parents.
Is . . .
Yet the reality is
that many of the children placed in foster care have been sexually abused.
The chances that a sexually abused child will be placed with families
is high. Many of these children are placed for other reasons, such as
neglect, physical abuse, and abandonment. Often the social workers who
place these children are not aware of the sexual abuse.
In many cases, this abuse
is first discovered by the foster family caring for the child. Night
time and bath time are scary for many children who have experienced
sexual abuse. Having a care giver there to console them and listen to
them may bring forth unspoken birth family secrets such as sexual abuse.
Realizing that so many children
have experienced child sexual abuse and that they could be brought into
care for other reasons, it makes sense that all foster and adoptive
families be educated about sexual abuse. As far as I am concerned, this
should be a mandatory requirement.
My family fostered for seventeen
years and at least 60% of the children were sexually abused. Some the
social workers knew this up front and shared this information with me.
Others didn't know, and I only found out through the behaviors of the
children and things they said.
When I started fostering
in 1982, foster parents weren't offered education or even support meetings.
Today states, counties, and agencies require specialized training for
their care givers, and foster and adoptive parents are often included
in the team treating and caring for foster children. Currently there
is a course on this topic available through the NCDSS Children's Services
Statewide Training Partnership. Entitled "Fostering and Adopting
the Child Who Has Been Sexually Abused (CSA/MAPP)," this course
is open to all certified MAPP trainers. If you would like to have special
training in your county about fostering sexually abused children, ask
your county DSS to send its MAPP trainers to this course. If you are
a certified MAPP trainer yourself, simply register for this course.
To learn more see the box below.
Child Sexual Abuse
Let's explore the
topic of child sexual abuse and how it relates to our work with children.
What is child sexual
abuse? It is the interaction, including non-physical contact (such as
verbal abuse, exposure, or pornographic photos) as well as physical
contact between a child and a person in a power position in which the
child is used for sexual stimulation of the abuser or others.
The word "power"
plays a huge role in the how children are over controlled.
Child sexual abuse
doesn't occur only by family members, but for this article I will refer
primarily to family abuse, or incest. Children who have been sexually
abused by a family member are commonly enveloped into a secret life.
It is the most secretive abuse of all.
Don't Children Tell?
don't understand that it is wrong.
It is a family cycle.
Children are kept in seclusion without outside interactions so the
secret will be upheld.
- The child may not have the
verbal capacity to tell. Words like vagina could have been replaced
by the offender to "knee" to disguise sexual abuse if
disclosed by the young child.
- Children are taught to respect
and obey adults. Adults forget to explain that there are boundaries
to this respect.
- Children feel guilty
if they tell and could cause their loved one (abuser) to go to jail
or their family to be broken apart. This could be a frequent threat
from the perpetrator.
- Boys feel ashamed if
they tell because they are taught to fight and take control. They
may feel they are homosexual. Society doesn't make it easy for boys
If the abuser is the
child's father or mother's boyfriend and the child's mother is aware
or suspects the sexual abuse, she may not tell. Reasons could be her
self-esteem has been beaten down, she is ashamed, or she fears the loss
of the abuser's love or support. She may also fear the loss of her family
if she seeks help. She may not acknowledge the abuse because if she
did she would have to take responsibility.
Women sexually abuse
children too. We don't catch them because we openly accept their "nurturing
behaviors." Bathing, sleeping with children, dressing, and touching
children is normal to society. So, when the offender's behavior goes
from nurturing to sexual assault, no one notices.
How can care givers
help a child feel safe, not over-controlled and not guilty? There are
common behaviors of sexually abused children that frustrate care givers.
Excessive masturbating in public, lack of boundaries, and sexually playing
with toys are a few of the behaviors. These are "learned"
behaviors and can be replaced with more appropriate ones if patiently
taught by caring foster or adoptive parents. But this isn't one person's
job: it is the treatment team's responsibility to do this together.
1. Be friendly
but clear with your household rules. Develop a plan that spells
out how to live in your home. Don't assume children know these things.
Write it down and give a copy to your social worker so he or she is
aware of how your family functions. This can be helpful if anyone questions
Rules are developed only when there is a need. For example, masturbation
is a reaction to be being sexually stimulated (abused). Babies touch
themselves as infants. It is a natural action. It can become an excessive
need for a child who has been sexually stimulated over a long time period.
It can show up when the child is insecure, deep in thought, or needing
to be stroked (much like a child who gently pulls on their hair or sucks
their thumb). Many times, the child isn't aware of what he or she is
doing. Instead of yelling or shaming the child, establish guidelines
for children if they find they need to "touch themselves."
Must be alone with door shut and shades closed, don't cause pain or
bleeding, no objects can be used, time alone is limited to 15 minutes.
Add the guidelines you feel are important. Then give children opportunity
to develop self-esteem and other interests. Their need to masturbate
2. Listen to the
child when he or she is disclosing; don't tell the child how to feel
or what to say. Children don't always need advice, but they do need
to vent. Let them use their own words, even if they are offensive to
you. You can help them replace their offensive words with more acceptable
ones later when they aren't opening their souls up to you. Trust can
be built here. Do not promise not to tell anyone what is shared. Rather,
say, "I won't share the information unless I feel there
is someone who can help. I will tell you who I feel we need to share
this information with."
3. Don't talk badly
about the child's birth family.
A child's family is part of her identity; these connections are vital
to the outcome of the child's life. If she is currently separated from
the non-offender and her siblings, she may feel isolated and afraid.
Helping the child to visit her family will help build the child's trust
in you. You aren't judge and jury of the child's birth familyothers
on the treatment team are responsible for this. If you take this position
you may not be in place to help.
4. Record any information,
such as birth parents' behavior with child, signals of sexual abuse
of the child, and disclosures from the child or family. Report these
to the child's social worker immediately. Report your reactions to what
you observed. Keep a copy of everything you submit.
5. Let the child
talk about his feelings about his family, including the offender.
"Regardless of how we feel about them, incest perpetrators are
still very important to the families they have betrayed. In psychological
terms they are still `central attachments' for the family" (McMahon,
2000). You might want to tell the child, "There are different ways
parents can show children `love' and that is what the social workers
and doctors are trying to teach your parents."
6. Teach the child
some of the other ways parents can show children caring and love.
This is another reason why foster and adoptive parents have to be friendly
and clear with boundaries so the child can learn. Remember, repeating
the rules and expectations will be necessary until the child can create
new positive habits. This is an opportunity to work on enhancing the
child's self esteem by spending quality time with her. Have fun, laugh,
and play. This may be the first time the child has freely experienced
this type of interaction.
7. Create a "life
book" with the child so she can put her life into perspective.
With stories and pictures, the child can look at her past, present,
and future. It will help alleviate her confusion and leave her with
time to laugh and play. Social workers and therapists can use the life
book as a therapeutic tool in counseling the child. Classes on how and
why to create life books will be held this spring in different places
across North Carolina. The class is called, "My Life's Book,"
and is sponsored by the N.C. Division of Social Services. Information
about this course can be found in your county DSS's copy of the Division's
Winter/Spring 2001 Training Calendar. Ask your social worker
to call and register you. Foster and adoptive parents and social workers
are encouraged to take this course.
8. Spend time with
the child and teach the child how to laugh and play. Give them power
in their lives and help them to understand that they are not at fault.
This could be life changing for a sexually abused child.
D. (1991). Fostering
the sexually abused child: A guide for the foster family. King
George, Va: American Foster Care Resources, Inc.
J. (Ed.). (2000). The
effects of sexual abuse. Children's
Services Practice Notes, 5(2),
1-8. On-line <http://www.sowo.unc.edu/fcrp/Cspn/vol5_no2.htm>
Foster, an author, national trainer, and consultant, lives in Charlotte,
NC. Her years as a foster parent have been her greatest learning tool.
Included are excerpts from her books, Fostering Relationships: Working
with the Birth Family and Team Building: A Workbook for Foster
Families and Social Workers, published through American Foster Care
2000 Jordan Institute for Families