Vol. 16, No. 1 • November 2011

Teaming for Safety
Working with Children Who Have Been Sexually Abused

by Joanne Scaturro

Schools smell like chalk and pencils at the beginning of the year. Everyone is dressed up, with new notebooks in hand, and new toys to share with peers. My first day as a social worker began with these sights and smells.

A little girl named Brenda was referred to me because she smeared Vaseline all over her arms and legs during class. The teachers were baffled.

When I asked her about it she told me that her daddy did that when he wanted to be close to her in their “secret” way. I asked her to draw a picture of her dad and she drew his face and hands and furiously filled in the lines with a black crayon.

She said, “My daddy hurts my heart.” She was five years old.

To this day, I can remember the sadness and compassion I felt as a young social worker. I am glad I remember those feelings because now, 40 years later, when I partner with social workers and foster/adoptive families, we have that common ground of wanting to do whatever we can to provide children who have been sexually abused with a sense of safety.

Here are practical strategies for insuring safety from the course “Fostering and Adopting the Sexually Abused Child” (Children’s Alliance of Kansas, 1996):

1. Know your child’s history, including details of the abuse.
This information will help you avoid triggers that may bring back the fears associated with being sexually abused. Triggers can include: smells of cologne, tobacco, alcohol or sweat; specific songs or types of music; a certain time of day; being alone with an adult; or horseplay, such as wrestling.

It is okay for you to know your child’s history. North Carolina policy permits county DSS agencies to share with foster parents, relatives, or other foster care providers any information they need to care properly for a child placed in their home.

2. Put rules in writing and share them.
Put privacy, safety, and touching rules in writing and share them with the child, agencies that serve your child, and immediate and extended family.

Not only does this make the environment consistent for the child, but gives others information about how to keep the child safe without giving them confidential information. Pay particular attention to privacy rules pertaining to the bathroom and bedroom, as that is where most sexual abuse takes place.

3. Define physical boundaries.
It’s crucial for the team around the child to help redefine appropriate touch. To avoid mixed messages, show the child how to express affection in a nonsexual way. Emphasize that no one has a right to touch a child where a bathing suit covers their body.

4. Validate “emotional radar.”
Let the child know that if he or she feels uncomfortable when someone touches them, this feeling is important. Teach them to trust their feelings of discomfort and recognize them as being signals that they should be on guard.

5. Empower the child.
Make it clear to children that they have a right to say no when an older person tries to touch them in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable.

6. List people that can help the child feel safe.
Since children who are sexually abused are at risk to be re-abused, we need to assist them in defining adults with whom they can share information. Let the child have input into this discussion.

7. Play “What if…”
Help the child rehearse resisting possible sexual advances by making up possible situations and asking a child what they would do in that situation. Again, this empowers the child to say no, run away, and tell someone they trust what happened.

8. Know how your agency wants you to handle disclosures of sexual abuse.
Often children do not disclose they have been sexually abused until they are in foster care. Some children wait until they feel secure before sharing details of things that have happened to them.

Most agencies do not want resource families to ask for details; the agency wants to refer the child to someone who will interview them about the situation. Too much questioning by the foster parent can make the court case complicated. Be clear how your agency wants you to handle these difficult conversations.

9. Ensure the school knows who is approved to pick up the child.
It is not enough to give names of individuals who are approved to pick up the child. Work with your agency to provide photographs of those individuals.

10. Don’t try to go it alone.
There are common behaviors of sexually abused children that challenge caregivers. Masturbating in public, lack of boundaries, and sexually playing with toys are a few examples. These behaviors 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 (Foster, 2000).

Perhaps this is the most important message of all: keeping the child safe is a TEAM effort and responsibility. We may not be able to resolve everything our children experience, but we can work together to give them a chance to have a good life.

Joanne Scaturro is a Program Consultant with the NC Division of Social Services Child Welfare Staff Development Team

Stay Up-to-Date about Internet and Phone Safety

Most children are teaching us about the Internet, cell phones, and social networking! But the reality is, young people with histories of sexual abuse are at higher risk of online sexual exploitation than are other children (Brown, et al., 2009). Sending personal information or talking online to strangers about sex puts children at the greatest risk, since these actions make them most likely to receive solicitations (Grayson, 2010). Here are some websites to help you keep kids safe.

a) Federal Bureau of Investigation: A Parent’s Guide to Internet Safety (www.fbi.gov). Scroll down to “What Are Signs Your Child Might Be At Risk Online?” for ways to recognize possible child abuse, particularly sexual abuse, on the Internet and what to do to prevent and resolve it.

b) Internet Safety Tips for Caregivers (http://www.wifostercareandadoption.org/library/392/internetsafety.pdf). This tip sheet from Adoption Resources of Wisconsin provides clear and helpful information for keeping children safe online.

c) NetSmartz (www.netsmartz.org). Provides resources for parents and guardians, educators, law enforcement, teens and kids. There is also a Spanish online resource.

Copyright 2011 Jordan Institute for Families