When entering the foster system, social workers won’t have a full picture of the experiences a child may have gone through before removal. They will have heard of enough situations in the home to warrant action being taken, but a scared child will not be an open book. Instead, children are removed and placed either in a kinship or a foster home with the majority of the team being unaware of the full extent of the abuse that child experienced. The first goal of these foster or kinship homes will be connection and helping them to begin to feel safe again, while working with the foster team to track new information and set up supports for any abuse that is known.
Take Note: Of the unknown types of trauma that may occur, sexual abuse is often an area of insecurity for foster parents who may not have any experience or knowledge about helping a child pursue emotional healing in that area. This becomes increasingly difficult for nervous parents who have a child that discloses abuse much later into placement. This article from fosteringperspective.org breaks down how common it is for social workers to be unaware about sexual abuse that occurred in their original home or even in another foster home that the child moved from. It is estimated that anywhere between 70-80% of children in foster care have experienced some type of sexual abuse, or were witness to sexual abuse of others. The reality is, most children will hold on to such a painful secret until they start to feel safe, which often occurs months into a foster placement, or even longer before they start to talk.
Start with Education: Opening up about past abuse can feel terrifying for a child, and is a time that they will need extra support to know that no matter what they have been through they are worthy of being loved, they have a voice that matters, and they deserve to be safe. Education is one of the best starting points for foster parents. ChildWelfare.gov has a booklet that helps parents understanding signs and behaviors that may suggest sexual abuse has occurred to children and youth, along with ways to seek help and support the victim.
Empowering the Child: While parenting a child who is processing sexual abuse, parents will want to be intentional about giving them some control in their daily life through choices as opposed to telling them what to do. This can be as simple as providing one or two options, or helping them be a part of planning the family schedule or weekly menu. By providing areas of control you will be reminding them that they can be empowered again and helping to boost their self-esteem. You will also want to give them a safe and comforting environment that they can escape to in the home if they are feeling overwhelmed and need to calm down or be alone. It is normal for children to push boundaries while processing through painful events. Having a space to go while they are escalated or scared will help resolve conflict without adding to the problem. Children will need time and empathy to process through their experiences and come to a point of healing.
It is strongly recommended that you work with the child’s team to get a trained therapist involved who has experience working with children who have been sexually abused. If any new sexual abuse is disclosed by a child, it needs to be reported to your states Child Abuse Hotline and to your foster care team.
written by Deb Uber & Natalie Burton