Understanding Foster Care Sexual Abuse

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Foster care is a temporary living solution for children who are unable to live with their birth parents for specific reasons. Their parents may have passed away or have ongoing medical or legal issues that lead them to be unable to care for their child. In the worst cases, children were abused or otherwise treated poorly by their birth parents. 

When authorities remove a child from the family home, they place the child in temporary foster care. Adults who care for children in foster care may be extended relatives, friends of the family, or unknown to the child prior to the new living arrangement.

Unfortunately, putting children into foster care can sometimes leave them in even worse positions than before. This is especially true if the living situation the child enters into includes people they don’t know, such as in a group home or an unknown family. One study found that girls living in foster homes are a particularly vulnerable group. The investigation examined 155 adolescent girls in foster care and found that 81% had experienced sexual abuse. 68% of girls reported being sexually abused by more than one individual.

In Florida, a longtime foster parent who had housed over 70 children during his time in the system was found to have repeatedly raped a child and placed hidden cameras in the bathroom to watch her shower. He saved the video footage of the molestation, which remained unknown until he was arrested. Unfortunately, caseworkers were unaware of the abuse and continued to send foster children to the home.    

A Johns Hopkins University study found that children in foster care are four times more likely than other children to be sexually abused, and those who live in group homes experience an abuse rate of 28 times those of other children. There are indicators that children living in a foster care situation may be more likely to experience abuse at the hands of their foster parents or other people living in the home. 

Adults, caseworkers, and other individuals who are aware that a child is living in foster care should pay special attention to signs that the child may be subjected to abuse of any kind, including sexual abuse. Understanding what child sexual abuse is and the effects that it can have on an individual may help to put a stop to it when it occurs. It is vital that individuals report suspected abuse as quickly as possible. If it continues, the abuse may have serious long-term effects that last into adulthood.

What is child sexual abuse?

Child sexual abuse involves the use of a child for sexual purposes. Sexual encounters may occur between a child and an older person, or they may occur between the child and another, more mature child. These encounters can include sexual acts, sexual touching, or simulation of the conduct. Abuse is determined to have occurred when the child is deliberately exposed to pornography or becomes the subject of it themselves. In extreme cases, child sexual abuse can lead to sex trafficking. 

Examples of child sexual abuse can include any of the following actions:

Any of these acts constitute child sexual abuse, although other acts may also be classified as such. 

What are some of the signs that child sex abuse is occurring?

Oftentimes, children who are experiencing child sex abuse will present with certain symptoms. These may be behavioral, physical, or emotional. Some signs that suggest child sex abuse is occurring include any of the following.

Nightmares or Other Sleeping Issues

Children who are exposed to recurring abuse can have tremendous difficulty sleeping. They may experience nightmares and be unable to fall or stay asleep. In extreme cases, they may want an adult or another child to stay with them during the night so that they feel safe.

Distracted or Distant at Odd Times

Those who have been abused or traumatized may seem distracted or distant. This may present as daydreaming or being unable to discuss certain parts of their life. However, some children may also have medical conditions that cause distraction, such as ADHD or autism. Consider distraction and distancing actions alongside other symptoms that may be present.

Changes in Eating Habits

It’s not uncommon for those who experience child sexual abuse to change their eating habits. They may eat very little, or they can change the type of food they normally consume. In some cases, their appetite may increase significantly.

Sudden Mood Swings

Another sign of child sexual abuse can be sudden mood swings. These changes in mood can include rage, fear, insecurity, or withdrawal. If you notice that a child begins demonstrating moods that are atypical of their normal behavior, ask them if anything is bothering them.

New Fears of Certain People or Places

In some cases, children may exhibit a newfound fear of certain people or places. They may express significant worry when faced with being around those individuals. An uneasiness associated with certain places indicates that those areas may have been locations of abuse or that an abuser may frequent them.

Sexual Promiscuity

Those who have been sexually abused may become promiscuous themselves. They may be provocative with children of their own age or appeal to the sexual desires of people older than themselves. While sexual curiosity isn’t abnormal in the teen years, displaying overt signs of promiscuity may be a sign of sexual abuse.

Drug and Alcohol Abuse

Alongside sexual promiscuity is the potential for drug and alcohol abuse. Those who have been abused may be at risk for using drugs or alcohol as a mechanism for escape. They may regularly associate with other individuals who use or abuse these substances.

Depression and Anxiety

Persistent thoughts of the abuse may lead to an increase in depression and anxiety for those who have experienced it. They may become preoccupied with their thoughts or seem reluctant to engage in regular daily activities. Feelings of hopelessness or listlessness are not uncommon for those who appear depressed. 

Unwillingness to Be Close to Others

Some victims of sexual abuse may be unwilling to get too close to others and will emotionally detach themselves from potential relationships. Others may avoid talking about more intimate subjects and stick to surface-level conversations. They may shy away from making new friends or joining activities.

Sexually Transmitted Infections

Children who have contracted a sexually transmitted disease have most likely been sexually assaulted. If a doctor confirms that the child has an STI or another individual suspects that the child has one, they should be treated immediately. During treatment, the doctor or another adult should try to encourage the child to disclose information about any sexual contact they experienced and the nature of the relationship.

Are foster children less likely to report sexual abuse?

While children are overall less likely to report sexual abuse than adults, those who are in a foster care situation are unique. Unless they are living in a foster home with familiar people, such as extended relatives or grandparents, they probably won’t have much of a circle of trust. It’s not uncommon for children who live in group homes or with foster families of the system to constantly move from one location to another, sometimes within just a few weeks or months.

This lack of security leaves foster children without anyone to trust. They are unlikely to have close friends or a family to talk to. They may not have any siblings or other family relations who can help the child open up about their situation. 

There may also be safety concerns. Most abusers will warn their victims not to report or repeat anything related to the abuse. Since children rely on their adult caregivers for food, shelter, and personal items, they may fear that they will lose access to these items if they report the abuse.

Is there a higher probability of sexual abuse for foster children?

Studies say foster children are more at risk of sexual abuse, especially when the foster care provider is a group home or institutional provider. It’s not uncommon for sexual predators to offer foster care services, knowing that they may be able to take advantage of children. The foster care system itself, including group homes and institutions, is federally funded. Each state is given a share of the federal funds to administer the foster care program. 

Unfortunately, the system is usually stretched for funds. This can lead to a mismanaged program and an overworked administrative staff. Children often fall through the cracks, as there may be little oversight of them after they are placed in a foster home. While foster parents must undergo a background check before receiving children, these checks are often lackluster and may not uncover past misdoings.

The long-term effects of abuse

There are a number of long-term effects of child sexual abuse. The Children’s Bureau, a federally funded government agency, published a factsheet on how children fare after they have sustained abuse or neglect. Their findings indicated that children who were abused might experience numerous conditions in their adult years. These can include any of the below:

Toxic Stress

Frequent, prolonged stress can have long-lasting, damaging effects on a child’s health, behavior, and ability to learn. This type of stress can change the brain structure, priming the person’s stress response system to be triggered more frequently. It’s not uncommon for children who experience long-time stress from continuous abuse to develop serious cardiovascular problems or mental health issues. 

Juvenile Delinquency or Adult Criminal Activity

Those who have been abused in childhood are more likely to develop antisocial behaviors and form relationships with other antisocial people. They may participate in criminal activity, such as stealing, bullying, or acting with aggression towards others. Since they don’t have many (if any) positive role models, they may not know how to act  differently.

Alcohol or Drug Use

Another problem associated with child sexual abuse is alcohol or drug abuse. Since children who have been traumatized can have difficulty handling their feelings, they may resort to alcohol or drug use to get away from them. These substances can numb the pain they may be suffering and offer a way to temporarily escape from reality.

Problems with Attachment

Those who have been subjected to serious abuse as children may have trouble forming trusting relationships with others. They may be reluctant to connect more than superficially, or they may detach as soon as a relationship begins to get too close. Attachment problems can leave people caught in a cycle of broken relationships.

Poor Mental and Emotional Health

Overall poor mental and emotional health are very common for those who have been continuously abused as children. After regular cycles of such abuse, structural changes may occur in the brain. This can lead to significant mental health problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, ongoing depression, anxiety, or other conditions. 

How should I report suspected foster care sexual abuse?

If you suspect that a child in foster care may be experiencing sexual abuse, it’s important to act quickly. If the child is in immediate danger, call 911. Otherwise, there are state and national resources available for support. The Children’s Bureau, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has compiled a list of state child welfare agencies that handle the investigation of child sexual abuse.

The Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline can be reached at 1.800.4.A.CHILD. Professional counselors are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, through the hotline. They offer crisis intervention services and referrals to social services or support resources.

In some cases, people may have mandatory reporting requirements. This is the case with social workers, teachers, physicians, law enforcement officers, or other professionals who work to serve the public good.