Sexual Abuse: An Epidemic in Foster Care Settings?

As many as 75 percent of all children in foster care, upon leaving the system, will have experienced sexual abuse.

An approximate 0.73 percent of American children, over 530,000, live in foster care. Many of these children have been abused in some way. According to child welfare workers, 11 percent of all such cases of mistreatment involve sexual abuse.

Abuse in the System

One study by Johns Hopkins University found that the rate of sexual abuse within the foster-care system is more than four times as high as in the general population; in group homes, the rate of sexual abuse is more than 28 times that of the general population. These statistics do not speak to the situation these children are coming from, but it does show the very large problem of child-on-child sexual abuse within the system.

Foster children who suffer sexual abuse tend to be those who live with those caregivers who have the least verbal contact with child-welfare workers. It is believed that among the many reasons for this, a large factor is the lack of support those families receive from case workers.

Recognizing Abuse

There are cultural buffers which keep many from seeing the signs of abuse. For example, promiscuity in a young teen is a very important piece in the symptomology puzzle of sexually abused children. This warning sign commences a cycle of abuse, as a teen girl who dresses provocatively is then thought to be "asking for it." Female children are more likely to have been sexually abused than male children; and the older a child is upon entering the foster care system, the greater the likelihood of sexual abuse occurring.

Other signs of past abuse:

Bed wetting or other accidents that are not age appropriate

Withholding stools

Hyper vigilance and inability to sleep

Overly reclusive or submissive

Sexual aggression toward younger children, sexual activities with peers

If there is ongoing abuse in a child's life, signs may include:

Not receiving attention for physical problems that have been brought to a caregiver's attention

Coming to school and other activities early, and does not want to go home


Whatever your relationship is to a child you suspect is being, or has been abused, acting quickly is in the child's best interest. Furthermore, it is the law. Enabling further abuse of a child through inaction can, in a growing number of jurisdictions, lead to a finding of culpability for damage stemming from continued abuse.

A sexually abused child in a foster care setting has been passed over by many people who could have helped them; children who are already vulnerable, who do not have adequate social services available to them, are less likely to succeed as functioning adults. Just by watching for the signs of abuse, children can be protected.

Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer. For specific technical or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.

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