Adopting a child that has been sexually abused is scary for most adoptive parents, especially if they already have children in their home. Families that are open to adopting a child with many other risk factors will often shy away from a child that has been sexually abused.
This fear is so strong that several adoption social workers have told me that any mention of sexual abuse or even a suspicion of sexual abuse in a child’s file makes it incredibly hard for that child to ever be adopted. In many ways the young victims of sexual abuse are being doubly victimized–once by their abusers and now by family and agencies.
It’s almost as if we believe that there is no hope for a child that has been sexually abused. Nothing could be further from the truth according to Dr. Jennifer Shaw, a clinical psychologist specializing in childhood sexual abuse at the Gil Institute for Trauma Recovery and Education.
In this interview, we talk specifically about signs of sexual abuse, what to look for in the child’s pre-adoption life that would indicate a higher likelihood that the child has been sexually abused, and safeguards that need to be in place if you have other children in the family.
What Helps Children Recover from Sexual Abuse
According to Dr. Shaw, in order to heal and go on to live healthy happy lives, children need one person.
- One person who tried to prevent the abuse or tried to help the child.
- One person who believed the child when he/she disclosed the abuse.
- One person who reached out for professional counseling once child disclosed they were abused.
- One person who was willing to go the distance with the child and says “We’re in this together.”
What’s the Prognosis for Child Who Has Been Sexually Abused
After our interview, I asked Dr. Shaw if it was possible for children to heal and live full healthy and happy lives after childhood sexual abuse. She responded:
The recovery process takes different forms as there are many abuse-specific factors that can impact the course of recovery including chronicity and frequency of the abuse, type of relationship with the abuser, child’s capacity to cope pre-abuse, age at the time of the abuse, and absence or presence of protective factors following discovery of the abuse. For all children, full recovery depends primarily on how the world around them engages and supports them following discovery. With appropriate therapy, responsive and nurturing caregiving, and efforts to create a world for the survivor that is safe and secure, children can and do heal.
Resources to Help Families
- Child Trauma Academy
- National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN)
- Association for Play Therapy (APT) – can search for therapist by state
- For books and resources, Dr. Shaw recommends The Self Esteem Shop because the owner is a therapist and available to assist in finding the best resource . They accept email inquiries.
Is sexual abuse a risk factor that you would consider when adopting? Why or why not?Image credit: JON_CF
Add Your Comment
I don’t think it should matter. Everyone deserves a home. I’ve quite a few people who phased out of foster care family-less because all a lot of people see is the abuse and not the potential. Most of us have no intention of being sexual at all, we just need to feel safe and loved. Like everyone else.
You are so right, all kids DO deserve a home. There are great resources out there for foster and adoptive families who have a child who has been abused, to help them find healing and safe ways for the whole family to function while that healing is worked on. One of our favorite resources is the radio show referenced in this post. Another great resource is this one on healing and loss in trauma: https://creatingafamily.org/adoption-category/works-healing-loss-trauma-adoption/
I would adopt a female who was because I was sexually abused as a child and I can relate. My children are all grown. Taking in a boy who was sexually abuse I would not because I would fear we could not help him as well as my husband has never been abused.
I adopted a 6 year old from China a little over 2 years ago. I had very little information on what kinds of trauma he had been through but it turned out he was severely physically and sexually abused by his foster grandpa. The worst happened and he molested my other son, who is two years younger than him. I was devastated and the guilt was overwhelming. My first instinct was fear that I would need to rehome my older son because that is the only option anyone ever talks about. However, I found a very good therapist who specializes in sexual abuse, and I can say our family is healing and, for the most part our family is healthy and happy.
My older son will always have the scars from what he went through and I would never wish this on anyone. But it is not insurmountable either. It is definitely a special need, but it also needs to lose the negative stigma. Families are afraid to talk about it because we feel like bad parents, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. It has been a very lonely road because there is very little information out there that shows that there is hope and healing can and does happen. We as a family are different than we used to be. If I could go back, I would have prevented all of it. But it has not doomed us forever either.
Thank you Tammy for sharing your experience. I think it is also “lonely” because parents are afraid to talk about sexual abuse for fear of the stigma. I’m so glad your family is healing.
It *was* a factor when we were looking to adopt. Our agency went on and on about the possibility that children who had been sexually abused would abuse other children and we had nieces and nephews that were just too young, we couldn’t risk it. Was it fair to all the children that just needed a chance? No absolutely not, but when you’re adopting, especially when you’re adopting a child that is old enough to have a ‘history’, you do have *some* control over the types of behaviors you feel you can deal with and we had to give precedence to the children that were already in our lives (nieces and nephews) over children we hadn’t met yet.
Sara, one of the problems is that it is hard for parents adopting older kids either from foster care or internationally to determine if their child has been sexually abused. We spent time on the interview talking about how parents can tell–signs to look for.