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While the foster care system is meant to protect children from abuse and neglect from birth parents, foster care child sexual abuse is a devastating reality. These children are sometimes left in even more vulnerable and traumatized states in foster homes. The foster care system is an easy place for predators to abuse children. It’s underfunded, understaffed, and often lacks the oversight necessary to prevent this abuse.
Though there are many incredible foster parents out there, the minority who do abuse children must be stopped. Predators, including both foster fathers and foster mothers, recognize the access they have to foster care children. These adults are responsible for protecting them, usually because their biological parents failed to do so, yet too often they are abusers themselves.
Sexual Abuse in Foster Care Homes
Many states, institutions, and universities have investigated how common sexual abuse is in foster families, rendering startling results:
- Johns Hopkins University conducted a study of a select group of foster care children in Maryland. This study showed that foster care children are four times more likely to experience childhood sexual abuse than their peers not in the foster care setting. The study also found that children in group homes are 28 times more likely to be sexually abused.
- Oregon and Washington State studies found that nearly one-third of foster children reported that a foster parent or another adult in the home abused them. This study did not include reports on foster children abusing each other.
- In New Jersey, researchers completed various investigations into foster care abuse, concluding that “no assurances can be given” that foster children are safe in the state. The New Jersey Office of Child Advocacy completed a report that found 36.5% of sexual abusers were foster parents.
- A study of multiple cases in metropolitan Atlanta found that 34% of foster children experienced abuse, neglect, or other harmful conditions.
- In 2013, a series of FBI raids across the United States that recovered child sex trafficking victims found that more than half of the children were from foster care or group homes.
These statistics are based on studies and reported abuse, including physical abuse and sexual abuse. There are likely thousands more instances of abuse that go unreported by young children. These studies and statistics show that the system has failed to address the recurring sexual exploitation of children in foster care.
What is child sexual abuse?
Child sexual abuse, also known as child molestation, happens to millions of children, boys and girls alike. Child sex abuse can happen to any child, regardless of community, religion, race, or socioeconomic background. Sex abuse includes both sexual contact with a child and non-contact sexual interaction with a child by a caregiver.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines child sexual abuse as “any completed or attempted (non-completed) sexual act, sexual contact with, or exploitation (i.e., non-contact sexual interaction) of a child by a caregiver.” The CDC, along with the World Health Organization (WHO), also emphasizes that when it comes to child sexual abuse, the child does not fully comprehend, is unable to give informed consent to, or is not developmentally prepared to give consent to the actions.
Some examples of contact sexual abuse include:
- Attempted rape
- Penetration using a penis or fingers
- Sodomy (penetration using an object)
- Inappropriate touching
- Forcing a child to touch an adult inappropriately
Some examples of non-contact sexual abuse include:
- Masturbating in front of a child
- Exposing oneself in front of a child
- Forcing a child to masturbate
- Taking sexually explicit images or videos of a child (child pornography)
- Talking about sex with the intent to spark curiosity in a child (either in person or through a phone or computer)
- Trafficking a child
Why are foster care children at a higher risk of being sexually abused?
Children in the foster care system are at a higher risk of being sexually abused because bad actors take advantage of a system that is meant to protect children. The problem is exacerbated by the lack of oversight by the agencies that negligently place children in unsafe homes. This lack of oversight stems from a variety of factors, including:
- Lack of funding. The foster care system is funded by the federal government that provides funds to states to administer these child welfare programs. The organizations themselves, however, are non-profit state-licensed organizations. Neither state nor federal governments allocate enough funding for the non-profit organizations to implement better, safer, and more effective processes.
- Lack of extensive background checks and candidate screenings. Because of the lack of funding and urgency for foster parents to care for foster kids, the agencies often fail to conduct thorough background checks on the adult volunteers. The agencies have a duty to complete thorough background checks, and by failing to do so, they can potentially be liable for any injuries that happen to the foster child.
- Lack of staffing. Understaffing in the foster care system makes it challenging to operate each organization in a way that adequately prevents abusey.
These factors all play a role in why foster care children are at a higher risk of child sexual abuse. With better tools, specifically oversight and background checks, n.the foster care system could prevent a lot of this abuse.
What is the rate of sexual abuse in foster care?
While the exact numbers are unknown, as many incidents of child sexual abuse in foster care go unreported, various studies have produced startling results. In one study of girls in foster care who exhibited sexually abusive and aggressive behaviors, 81% reported that they were sexually abused in foster care. 68% of the girls in the study stated that they were abused by more than one individual.
Other reports based on surveys that go back for decades report that anywhere from 25% to 40% of former foster care children experienced abuse or neglect e in the system.
What are signs of child sexual abuse?
As part of the oversight in the foster care system, all staff, volunteers, and social workers must be familiar with the warning signs of child sexual abuses. There are both physical and nonphysical warning signs to look out for in younger children.
Some of the physical signs include:
- Sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
- Trauma to the genital area (unexplained bruising, bleeding, or blood on underwear, sheets, or other clothing)
Some of the behavioral signs include:
- Knowledge about or excessive discussion of sexual topics
- Inappropriate behavior
- Being secretive
- Not talking as much as usual
- Not wanting to be alone with certain individuals
- Being afraid to be away from primary caregivers (especially if it is a new behavior)
- Regressive behavior (such as thumb sucking or bedwetting)
- Compliant behavior
- Inappropriate sexual behavior for the child’s age
- Isolating oneself
- Avoiding taking off clothing
Some of the emotional signs include:
- Changes in eating habits
- Mood or personality changes
- Increased aggression
- Low self-confidence or self-image
- Excessive fearfulness or worrying
- Increase in health issues, such as headaches or stomach aches
- Increase in nightmares
- Lack of interest in usual activities, school, and friends
- Self-harming behaviors
Understanding this information will help everyone involved with children, including adoptive parents and family members, recognize if abuse has happened.
Why are foster children less likely to speak out about the abuse?
Many children blame themselves or lose trust and self-esteem after they have been sexually abused. e This makes it extremely difficult for children to come forward against their abuser. Another reason many children don’t tell anyone is because the abuser threatened them.
Nonetheless, if a child has an adult they trust in their lives, they are more likely to feel comfortable coming forward. Foster children often do not have any trusted adults in their lives, so they do not have anyone to speak to about the abuse. Furthermore, if the abuser is the foster parent and they threatened to kick them out, the child may fear they won’t have a house to sleep in, clothes to wear, or food to eat. Foster kids often feel like they need to choose between reporting the abuse and having a place to live..
What are the long-term effects of child sexual abuse?
The long-term effects of child sex abuses are tragic for all child abuse victims. Some of these long-term effects include:
- Higher rates of depression
- Eating disorders
- Dissociative patterns
- Drug and alcohol problems
- Sexual problems
- Relationship problems
Combine these long-term problems with the fact that many foster care children already suffer from emotional and behavioral issues. The short-term and long-term effects can be detrimental to a foster child’s well-being, which is why child protections must be in place.
Can you sue the foster care agency if you were sexually abused?
Yes. You can file civil lawsuits against both the abuser and the foster care agency that placed you in the abuser’s care. In most states, you will have to prove that the foster care agency was negligent in placing you in the foster care home and should have known that they were putting you at risk. You can prove this by showing that the foster care agency failed to complete a thorough background check, including a sufficient criminal background check, failed to supervise your placement adequately, failed to follow up on a complaint, and/or failed to take protective action after learning about a violation.
What should you do if you were sexually abused in foster care?
If you were sexually abused in foster care, you do not have to go through the healing process alone. All children deserve to grow up in a safe environment, though we recognize that does not always happen. We compassionately fight for our clients’ rights and help them receive the justice they deserve.
Many states have changed their statutes of limitations, allowing victims to pursue claims regarding their allegations of abuse, even if the abuse happened years ago. Some states, including New York, New Jersey, and California, have created ‘lookback windows’ to support survivors and allow them to file claims, no matter what their ages are or when the abuse happened. However, the deadline for filing these claims is set to run out within the next couple of years.
We are honored to be the voice of many people who experienced child sexual abuse in foster care. Contact us now to learn about how we can help you.