Vol. 13, No. 1• November 2008

Family Secrets: Sexual Abuse Is common but Often Hidden

While few children enter foster care solely because of sexual abuse, studies suggest that foster youth are twice as likely as other children to have experienced sexual abuse, whether at home or since entering the system. Lisa Lubell, director of the Child Sexual Abuse Education, Evaluation and Treatment Project at Lawyers for Children, talks about why.

The number of children in foster care who have been sexually abused is high. There are many reasons for that. But basically, children whose parents are unable to care for them, or who are not living with their biological family, are vulnerable to being preyed upon.

Alone and Afraid
In biological homes where there’s neglect, the parents may not be too focused on the child because they’re so involved in their own struggles, whether it’s with mental illness, substance abuse, or sometimes just survival. A parent’s lack of focus on the child, or lack of connection, can make the child more vulnerable to sexual abuse because an abuser sees that the child is not protected. The parents may also not pick up the signs that something is wrong.

Older kids sometimes come into care because of acting out behaviors that their parents can’t handle, and underlying those behaviors is sexual abuse that the kids haven’t told their parents about. Common behaviors are running away and symptoms of trauma that look like acting out, such as suicidal behaviors, self-cutting, aggression, fire setting, sexual behaviors (such as excessive masturbation or sexual play in younger children, or having many partners in older children) that are considered too advanced for their age or unacceptable to a parent.

Usually the abuse was by a relative or someone who lives in the home—abuse is most commonly committed by people the kids know—and the kids have a real fear of disclosing the abuse to their parent. Kids fear that their parent’s loyalty will be to person who abused them, or they feel ashamed, or they’ve gotten a silent message from their parent not to talk about this kind of thing. They also fear the consequences to the rest of the family if they were to tell, and they feel they need to protect their family. But their behaviors show the abuse.

Kids can also be abused in their foster homes, where they become accessible to a variety of adults—including group home staff or older children in the home—who sometimes will take advantage of a kid they think is powerless. Many times children in foster care really do feel powerless and isolated, so they don’t speak up. Some are so desperate for connection and relationship that sexual abuse seems to give them the attention and nurturance they crave, even though it is actually abusive. It’s a tragic consequence of the system that doesn’t make them safer.

Teen girls in care also are particularly vulnerable to getting into relationships with older men or getting drawn into prostitution or other kinds of sexual exploitation. That can happen because early sexual abuse puts them at risk of developing sexually inappropriate relationships, and also because in care they may live in environments, like group homes or residential centers, where it seems that girls are really preyed upon by older males.

Once in care, kids with sexual abuse histories also are more likely to be moved from placement to placement, because foster parents and caseworkers often misinterpret behaviors that are the result of the trauma, and become punitive towards kids for behaviors that the kids may not have control over.

A Family History
Finally, many birth parents of children in foster care have experienced sexual abuse in their own lives. That can be an underlying reason why birth parents might get depressed or turn to drugs. When parents have never opened up about their abuse, or weren’t believed if they did, they learn a pattern of not allowing themselves to believe that it happened and could happen again. They also learn a pattern of protecting the family from the system or from looking bad, instead of responding to the child’s needs.

Sexual abuse is devastating, and has painful, traumatic effects on children and their families. It can seem too painful and shameful to believe. So it’s natural to react by saying, “This can’t be happening,” and shut down against believing it, even when you know the truth. As difficult as it can be to support a child when she comes forward, it’s so important for parents to validate a child’s experience, report the abuse to a professional, and help the child recover.

Reprinted with permission from Rise Magazine

Copyright 2008 Jordan Institute for Families