In a perfect world, your foster child would come into your home and immediately be healed by your love. The reality is, when a child is taken away from his home due to abuse and neglect, it is possible the type of abuse he suffered is of a sexual nature. Helping your foster child who has been sexually abused is scary, but the problem has to be faced head on.
The number of children who are sexually abused ranges from 80,000-100,000 each year, including children in foster care. This doesn’t count abuse that has never been reported. The effects of abuse can be lifelong and, if they aren’t addressed, might result in challenges like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Also, children who have been sexually abused are at risk of becoming perpetrators and continuing the vicious cycle.Recognize the Problem
For example, if he is under ten years old, he may have problems sleeping and might wet the bed. He also may fear a specific type of person (e.g., a tall man with short black hair and a beard). Seeing this kind of person can trigger the memory of sexual abuse.
The more obvious indicators of sexual abuse are that he may fondle himself at home or school, or he may show his private body parts and refer to them in a sexually explicit manner. He might also begin to experiment with sexual behavior with children his age.
If your foster child is older, he may be extremely sexually promiscuous, withdrawn and even suicidal. He might also solicit children younger than him or adults to participate in sexual activities.
These are behaviors that should be addressed immediately. You have to take caution with helping him reveal his secret because, as traumatizing as it may be for you, it is more traumatic for your child in care.
He is afraid – and in his mind, he has every reason to be. His safety, or the safety of his loved ones, may have been threatened. Your foster child may also fear never returning to his family. Even though he experienced abuse, he might not want to be permanently removed from his home.
For example, if a relative abused him, your foster child may feel like it will break up his family. If the abuser is your foster child’s father, he can fear his dad going to jail. Your child in care can believe this will ultimately hurt everyone. It is possible he both fears and loves the person who has abused him. That is a huge weight to carry as a child.
He may also feel it’s his fault. This feeling can be very real for him, and he should be reassured that is not the case. It’s very important he knows that he’s not to blame and that it’s OK to tell. In order for him to open up to you, he has to be comfortable and able to trust that you care and will do what’s best for him. It will be hard for you to hear your foster child has been sexually abused. Don’t panic. He is already apprehensive, and if you show anger or anxiety, that could stop him from sharing what he went through.
Each child is different, so the type of treatment will vary. For example, if he acts out sexually with other children, he needs specific treatment for that behavior. If he keeps to himself and regresses into a deep depression, he needs therapy that will help him in those areas.
Here are some general tips for you to follow:
• Know his physical boundaries – forced touching (e.g., hugs) or tickling may set off memories of abuse
• Encourage and respect his privacy – not invading his personal space will help him feel safe and teach him the importance of boundaries
• Monitor his screen time (time spent on the computer and watching TV) – he can be exposed to inappropriate content that may trigger sexual activity
• Supervise and monitor play with other children and siblings – avoid opportunities for him to act out sexually with others or to be violated himself
There is more helpful information about sexual abuse at HealthyChildren.org.
While it is important to protect your other children in the home, it’s also vital to not be overprotective. Too much supervision can make your foster child feel like an outcast and cause him to either isolate himself or act out more. Instead, teach your other children to stand up for themselves and to tell you immediately if anything happens that makes them uncomfortable.
Believe it or not, you also have to protect yourself. If your child in care is stressed, confused or trying to avoid discipline, he may accuse you of sexual abuse, and any allegation requires a full investigation. The best way to protect yourself is to document his behavior and inform his caseworker if he exhibits any signs of having been sexually abused.
embrella has a course for licensed resource parents in New Jersey called The Child and Sexual Abuse that offers insight on how to help your foster child through this traumatic experience.
Remaining calm, informing the right people and supporting your foster child through this tough period in his life will help him better heal now, so he can have a chance at a healthy future later.
Salendria Mabrey is a Communication and Development Associate at Foster and Adoptive Family Services.