How to determine if your adopted child has been sexually abused prior to adoption

Children without parents or with ineffective parents are vulnerable to all sorts of abuse. Adoptive parents, especially those adopting from foster care or internationally, are often in the position of having to decide whether to adopt a child when they have little information about the child’s prior life or experiences. Or they have adopted a child and are beginning to wonder if this precious child was sexually abused in his pre-adoption life.

It is crucial to get help for the child and help for the family raising her in order for this family to thrive. Children can heal from sexual abuse, but the first step is for her parents to understand if this abuse happened.

The following are signs that your child may be been sexually abused or at higher risk for this type of abuse.

1. Child’s pre-adoption environment:

  • Lack of structure combined with the presence of adolescents and adults coming in and out of the child’s life.
  • Absence of adults. Too few adults for too many children? Low caregiver to child ratio.
  • Sleeping arrangements where older children or teens slept in close proximity to younger children.

2. Adoption files:

  • Little information and lots of unknowns.
  • Language that indicates a suspicion of sexual abuse.

3. Child’s behavior:

  • Explicit sexual knowledge beyond the child’s developmental stage.
  • Sexual preoccupation indicated by language, drawings, or behavior.
  • Acting out sexually and general lack of understanding of boundaries.
  • Inserting toys or other objects in genital openings.
  • Sexual behaviors with other children that seems unusual, aggressive, or unresponsive to limits or redirection.
  • Excessive masturbation, sometimes in public, not responsive to limits or redirection.


a. Creating a Family Radio Interview with Dr. Jennifer Shaw, a clinical psychologist at the Gil Institute for Trauma Recovery and Education, “Adopting a Child That May Have Been Sexually Abused”, May 6, 2015.

b. Child Welfare Information Gateway. Parenting a Child Who Has Been Sexually Abused: A Guide for Foster and Adoptive Parents

Image credit: Armando Maynez