Sexual Abuse

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sexual abuse

According to the National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect, there were 119,000 reports of childhood sexual abuse in 1996. Incidents involving girls are far more likely to be reported, accounting for 77% of all sexual abuse incidents. It is thought that boys may be victimized less often and/or are less likely to come to medical or social attention.

There are various forms of sexual abuse; intrusion, which refers to actual penile penetration, genitally, orally or anally; molestation with genital contact but no penetration; and other sexual abuse, such as fondling of the breasts or buttocks or other inappropriate sexual behavior. It can also include using the child as a subject for photos or videos of a sexual nature.

The perpetrator of sexual abuse is usually someone familiar to the child, such as a relative, biological parent, sexual partner of the biological parent or even other members of a foster family. Often, the child has learned to hide the sexual abuse because of physical or emotional coercion by the perpetrator.

Social workers have an ethical and moral responsibility to report incidences of sexual abuse that have happened to a child a family is considering adopting so the family can be fully aware of whether they wish to adopt the child as well as how they can formulate plans to help the child. The social worker need not tell who was the perpetrator but should tell what happened in as much detail as confidentiality will allow.

Unfortunately, in many instances the social worker may not know of incidents of sexual abuse that have happened to the child, and it may not be revealed until much later, when the child feels comfortable enough with the parent to tell the parent what happened.

One reason the child may not tell anyone about the abuse is because the child presumes he or she deserved it. Says author Marian Sandmaier in her book, When Love is Not Enough: How Mental Health Professionals Can Help Special-Needs Adoptive Families."This is particularly true of sexually abused children, some of whom also have learned to equate love with sex and may not consciously feel they were maltreated." They often suffer low SELF-ESTEEM, believing that at least part of the sexual abuse was their fault. The abuser may have told them that the abuse was, in fact, their fault. They may also have enjoyed some of the sexual activities that occurred and then felt guilty and bad for liking it.

Sandmaier says a child who has been sexually abused in the past may exhibit seductive behavior that can cause "outright panic among family members. Although the child may be looking for the only form of nurturance he or she knows, the parents are likely to view the child's behavior as a profound threat to family stability."

Not all sexually abused children exhibit provocative behavior and other symptoms of previous abuse. Joan McNamara of the Family Resources Adoption Program in Ossining, New York, has written an informative pamphlet for prospective adoptive parents and adoptive parents entitled Tangled Feelings: Sexual Abuse & Adoption.

McNamara describes symptoms common to sexually abused children, including "sexual knowledge or behavior beyond the child's age level, aversion to touch, or, conversely, seductive or clinging behavior, marked sensitivity to body exposure (aversion or excessive interest), self-exposure and excessive masturbation."

According to McNamara, sexually abused boys are confused about their identity and act out, but girls internalize the guilt of the abuse. In addition, the child may be emotionally "stuck" at the developmental stage he or she was in at the time of the abuse.

McNamara says that in working with adopted children who had been sexually abused, the therapist must realize that older children sometimes believe the abuse somehow validated their own feeling of extremely low self-esteem.

Counseling before adoptive placement is often a good idea because sexual abuse is an extremely emotional topic and some people may need help to decide whether or not it is an issue they can deal with. After the adoption, counseling may be necessary for the family as well as for the abused child. Says Sandmaier, "Without counseling to help them [the family] understand the emotional and behavioral consequences of sexual abuse, a family may declare the child incorrigible and prematurely disrupt the placement."

No matter how well-prepared an adoptive parent feels he is, if a beloved child suddenly describes sexual abuse from the past, many parents would understandably feel enraged.

The danger is that the child could internalize the guilt for what happened to him or her as well, further damaging an already battered ego. It's very important the child realize that what happened was not his fault. Even if he or she enjoyed some of the sexual activities that occurred, it was the perpetrator's fault for introducing the child to sex and it was the perpetrator's fault for inducing his will over the child's will.

Another problem is that the child may accuse someone who did not abuse him, perhaps a former foster parent. He may not be lying on purpose but may be confused and insecure. Perhaps admitting he was abused by a person who was supposed to protect him, such as a parent, is too painful. False accusations of sexual abuse are occasionally intentional. The family and the social worker should be prepared for the possibility. Sometimes this behavior is the only way the child has learned to gain power over the people around her.

Children need a safe environment where the rules are known. They need a great deal of positive reinforcement, and they may have a very difficult time accepting that they are intrinsically worthy to the parent.

Concludes McNamara, "When hurt children enter a new family through adoption, past events and feelings are fused with current realities for these children and families. To help heal the hurt takes time, loving commitment, and willingness to be open to another person's pain." (See also NEGLECT.)

Sexually abused children have a high risk for adoption disruption. In a study reported in Social Work in 1994, researchers compared problem behaviors of 33 adopted children who had been sexually abused to behaviors of 135 adopted children who were not sexually abused. The average age for the sexually abused children was 10 and for the nonsexually-abused children was nine years.

The researchers found a disruption rate of 74% for the sexually abused children, compared to a rate of about 43% for the other older children who were adopted. The higher disruption rate was attributed in part to problematic behaviors that either did not get better after placement or, in some cases, worsened. For example, 40% of the sexually abused children had a problem with lying before placement (compared to about 23% of the other children). After placement, the lying behaviors increased to 45% for the sexually abused children, while the percentage decreased from 23% to about 16% in the other children.

Although sexual acting out decreased among the sexually abused children who were adopted, from about 43% before placement to 34% after placement, this behavior was very troubling to many adoptive parents. The researchers noted that in many cases previous sexual abuse had not been identified.

The researchers also found the sexually abused children had a much greater problem with attaching to adoptive parents than the other foster children who were adopted. For example, 34% had trouble attaching to the mother, compared to only 14% of the other adopted children. "Hostile acting out by child" was another problem associated with attachment difficulties and this problem was exhibited by about 43% of the sexually abused children versus about 10% of the other children.

Said the researchers, "To facilitate a healthy adjustment in adoptive placement, children who have been traumatized by sexual abuse need help in identifying this trauma, as well as other traumas or losses that are a part of their experience, so they can heal."

Suspect that sexual abuse may have occurred to a child who has been in many placements. Be prepared for this issue when you know in advance sexual abuse has occurred. Also, suspect sexual abuse when an older foster child's behavior becomes much worse after placement or the child exhibits sexually precocious behavior. (See also ABUSE, NEGLECT.)


Susan Livingston Smith and Jeanne A. Howard, "The Impact of Previous Sexual Abuse on Children's Adjustment in Adoptive Placement," Social Work, 39, no. 5 (September 1994): 491-501.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children, Youth and Families, Children's Bureau, Child Maltreatment 1996: Reports from the States to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System, 1998.

Joan McNamara, Tangled Feelings: Sexual Abuse & Adoption (Ossining, N.Y.: Family Resources Adoption Program, 1988).

Marian Sandmaier, When Love is Not Enough: How Mental Health Professionals Can Help Special-Needs Adoptive Families (Washington, D.C.: Child Welfare League of America, 1988).

Find more information on sexual abuse

Visitor Comments (1)
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genira - 3 years ago
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my name is genira kay Roberts barrett London ,me and my sister Margaret wasin a foster home where we was adopted when we was little girls I was 10 and my baby sister was 9,we are older now our foster father mark buck cowan our adopted foster father was sexually mulesting me and my sister Margaret we now go to a scychristrists now because of this we told our mother of this and she told department of human resources and it was taken in front of our judge and they just move us to safety no charges against our foster father was filed they the dhr and judge covered it up what can I do about my situation this is true no lies I now have bad dreams at night and no one to talk to but my husband david but he cant understand cause hes never been in a situation like we were ,thanks genira #1

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