Sexual Abuse: An Epidemic in Foster Care Settings?


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Children who have unstable homes are often placed in foster homes. This placement may occur because the home life is volatile. Often, foster care is treated as a temporary solution while the parent or parents in the home work on problems to later become reunited with their children. However, children may be raped, molested or sexually abused in these settings.

Prevalence of the Problem

Approximately 530,000 children in the United States live in foster care at any given time. Some of these children are placed in foster care because they have been sexually abused, abused in other ways or neglected. Unfortunately, many of these children are again abused in the foster care setting.

A study by John Hopkins University found that children who are in foster care are four times more likely to be sexually abused than other children not in this setting. Additionally, children who are in group homes are 28 times more likely to be abused than children not living in these homes.

Male and female children may be sexually abused. Likewise, very young children to nearly adult children can be abused in these settings.

What Is Sexual Abuse?

Sexual abuse is unwanted sexual behavior, such as touching, kissing, groping or penetrating a child who is not legally able to consent to such contact. Additionally, it can include acts that do not involve touching, such as taking inappropriate pictures of a sexual nature of a child.

Who Are the Abusers?

Abusers can be anyone. They do not necessarily have a criminal record of abuse. They can be the foster parents. They could also be employees for group homes, foster care workers, social workers, religious advisors, teachers or others in the child’s life. It is common for sexual predators to use their position in the child’s life to take advantage of the child.

Signs of Sexual Abuse

There are often a number of signs that may arise if a child is being abused. Younger children may be more likely to revert to child-like behaviors such as thumb sucking or wetting the bed. They may use inappropriate words to describe their genitals and other private parts. They may refuse to remove their clothing when necessary, such as to toilet, change a diaper or take a bath. They may start to act out sexually with peers or others. They may play with their toys, using suggestive language or actions indicative of sexual behavior. They may wet themselves when around the abuser.

Adolescents are often coerced into sexual abuse. They may be threatened and may be afraid to tell a loved one what is going on. Adolescents who are being sexually abused are more likely to be sexually promiscuous, do drugs, drink alcohol, run away from home and try to commit suicide. They may engage in self-injury or may compulsively eat or diet. They may be afraid to get close to others and may appear depressed or anxious.

Children who are being abused may have some physical warning signs, such as having blood on their undergarments. They may have pain when using the bathroom or have discoloration or discharges in certain areas of their body.

Many behavioral signs may point to abuse. Not every behavioral change is dispositive that abuse is occurring. However, if several signs are present, a loved one may want to investigate further into the possibility of sexual abuse being present. A child being sexually abused may have nightmares or have trouble sleeping. He or she may have a sudden change in eating habits or may refuse to eat. The child may think of their body as gross or bad. He or she may talk about a new older friend or refuse to share a secret shared with an older friend. He or she may be fearful around certain people or in certain settings. He or she may have sudden and unexplained mood swings or may socially withdraw.

Legal Action Against the Foster Care Agency

Foster care agencies are often required to follow strict protocol regarding how they vet foster parents and conduct extensive background checks. However, these procedures may not always be followed, or a foster parent may develop ways to get around them. In some cases, a foster care agency may be held liable for harm that befalls the child, such as if the foster care agency was negligent in the child’s placement. However, sometimes foster care agencies are state governmental programs, which may have immunity from such lawsuits. It is important to contact an experienced lawyer to discuss the possibility of pursuing a claim against a negligent foster care agency.

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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.

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