The Scariest Special Need of All-Would You Adopt This Child?

Dawn Davenport


Special Needs adoption-adopting a child that has been sexually abused

In my experience there is one special need that scares prospective adoptive parents the most. The one where even parents who have a wide range of acceptance for special needs will often say “no”. The special need that is preventing thousands of children from being adopted. That special need is being the victim of sexual abuse. Yes, that special need is actually being the victim of abuse!

Through no fault of their own these children have been sexually abused and are now being victimized again by the near universal fear of raising a child that has been sexually abused. Irony anyone?

I have been told by countless social worker that if the child has a record of sexual abuse in their file or a record of showing the symptoms of having been sexually abused, the chances of finding an adoptive family becomes infinitely harder. This breaks my heart.

There has been a campaign in the last decade to raise awareness of the damage that sexual abuse can cause children both in the present and often long into their future. The damage can be psychological and behavioral, but can also manifest in lifelong health issues caused by stress. This has been a much-needed campaign.

About one in seven girls and one in 25 boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18. (1) Children living without either parent (such as foster children) are 10 times more likely to be sexually abused than children that live with both biological parents. Children who live with a single parent that has a live-in partner are at the highest risk: they are 20 times more likely to be victims of child sexual abuse than children living with both biological parents. (2)

We absolutely need to bring childhood sexual abuse out of the shadows, but I fear that in our zeal for shining this light we have focused on the damage caused and have overlooked the ability of children to heal, leaving people to believe that these children are permanently damaged goods. It is a particularly cruel irony that a child who finally finds safety and feels comfortable enough to share their secret may be penalized for sharing by not being able to find a permanent loving healing home.

Sexual abuse has become the scarlet letter A of adoption.

Why Are We Afraid of Adopting a Child That Has Been Sexually Abused?

There are many reasons—some quite valid—for being concerned about adopting a child that has been sexually abused.

Fear that the child will abuse other children in the family.

There is a commonly held belief that all or most children who were sexually abuse will abuse other children. While I have not found good research on how often this happens, it is true that one of the symptoms of sexual abuse is a child who acts out sexually with themselves or others. However, according to Dr. Eliana Gil, in an interview on a Creating a Family Radio Show/Podcast, “Sexual abuse does not always lead to extreme responses [such as becoming an abuser]. The extreme responses are actually in the minority.

I once interviewed a 19 year old that had been sexually abused throughout her early childhood. She was adopted at age 13 and when we spoke she had just begun her freshman year at college. We talked about the difficulties of finding an adoptive family when you are an adolescent, and she wondered why so few people are open to adopting tweens/teens. I mentioned that some prospective adoptive parents are afraid that teens that have been abused will abuse other children in the family. She was shocked! Her words have stuck with me: “I would be the very last person to EVER do to another child what was done to me. I would die trying to make sure that my sister and brothers were never hurt like I was hurt.”

It is wise to take precautionary steps when bringing in any older child into the home to protect all the children in the home. This is smart parenting. But this should be done routinely regardless what the child’s file says about abuse.

Fear that the child will falsely accuse the parents of sexual abuse.

Children who have been abused in the past are more likely to claim that their foster or adoptive parents are abusing them. Sadly, they are also significantly more likely to be abused, although not necessarily by parents.

The National Foster Parent Association says that “foster and adoptive parents have a 1 in 8 chance of having false abuse or neglect allegations made against them—a level of risk much higher than that faced by the average parent.” (3) The North American Council on Adoptable Children says that false accusations of abuse against foster or adoptive parents are “frighteningly common”. Keep in mind that this risk exists for all types of abuse, not just sexual abuse, but the stigma of the accusation feels worse with sexual abuse.

These false claims may be made because a child that has experienced abuse can be easily triggered and flashback to the prior abuse making it difficult to distinguish the present from the past. Children who have been abused may also misunderstand normal parent/child interactions or need a way to distance themselves from parents because they fear intimacy or are unable to trust.

Children who have been abused may have mixed emotions about their biological family, and love is very often a part of the mix. They want to “go home” and may think that they will be returned to their biological parent if they accuse their foster or adoptive parent of abuse.

And yes, children who have been abused may use an allegation as an act of revenge or control against their adoptive or foster parents.

Steps can be taken to lower the risk of false accusations, such as getting in writing all documentation of accusations the child has made in the past, having the child in therapy to help him/her recover from past abuse, keeping a record of all sexually inappropriate acting out by the child, and having another adult in the room or nearby. It is not possible, however, to eliminate the risk entirely.

Belief that children cannot heal from past sexual abuse.

We have done a good job of bringing awareness to the damage caused by childhood sexual abuse. It’s time now for us to also bring awareness to the capacity of children to heal. Children who have been sexually abused are not damaged goods for life.

In her interview on the Creating a Family Radio Show/Podcast, Dr. Eliana Gil said it well.

We have tried so hard to talk about the impact of sexual abuse … to raise awareness, but we have not gotten the message out that kids can heal. …The thing that has been lost in our discussion of the impact of sexual abuse of children is the resiliency of kids and their ability to recover. … In the majority of cases, kids have an amazing intuitive ability to keep going towards growth.

Children need and want to trust their parents. A trained therapist can not only help the child heal, but also provide the parent with tools and language to further help. Specific parenting techniques such as creating a predictable, calm, and safe home can go a long way to helping children recover.

Parenting a child that has been sexually abused is not for everyone, but we need to spread the word that good parenting and good therapy can help these kids grow past the abuse to become happy healthy family members and adults.

Please, please share this blog so that we can start the campaign that children can be healed from the trauma of sexual abuse and their best chance is a loving family. 

Other Creating a Family Resources You Will Enjoy


  1. Townsend, C., & Rheingold, A.A., (2013). Estimating a child sexual abuse prevalence rate for practitioners: studies.
  2. Sedlak, A.J., Mettenburg, J., Basena, M., Petta, I., McPherson, K., Greene, A., and Li, S. (2010). Fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect (NIS–4): Report to Congress, Executive Summary. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families.
  3. National Foster Parent Association. Position Statement 112.02 – False Allegations of Abuse in Foster Care

28/08/2017 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog | 10 Comments

10 Responses to The Scariest Special Need of All-Would You Adopt This Child?

  1. Avatar Cricket says:

    People take advantage of the “false accuser” label very often. I grew up in foster care and was sexually abused by different foster fathers in addition the the physical abuse by my bio mother and sexual abuse from my stepfather before foster care, I was automatically labeled a liar without question or investigation. No one believed me just because and then no one wanted me. Being labeled a false accuser makes it even harder to find a home. So not only was I victimized by multiple adults who were supposed to protect me, I was then victimized by a system that protects foster parents over children. It made it even harder to find a home. No one wants a false accuser. I lived in 42 foster homes before I aged out alone. I have never abused a child. I have never falsely accused anyone, I graduated high school at the top of my class despite going to 7 of them, I graduated from college (only 2% of those who age out do) and I am a contributing member of society.

    So just think twice before you label a child a false accuser. Just because they were abused by more than one person doesn’t mean they are lying. Just because the abuser seems like a good person, doesn’t mean the child is lying.

    • Tracy Whitney Tracy Whitney says:

      I am sorry that you were falsely labeled and thus further victimized by the very people and the very system that were supposed to be protecting you. You must be extraordinarily proud of what you’ve overcome and achieved. You sound exactly like one of the young people Dr. Gil spoke of: “…In the majority of cases, kids have an amazing intuitive ability to keep going towards growth.”

      Thank you for the timely words to think twice about labeling a child, from the child’s perspective. It’s a warning well-taken.

  2. Avatar Full Spectrum Mama says:


    As a mother who feared the first item, I am now considering fostering/adoption.

    I thank you for this honest and moving post,
    Full Spectrum Mama

    • Tracy Whitney Tracy Whitney says:

      We are committed to sharing the truth about the healing and hope that can come to kids who’ve been abused. So glad our post impacted you.

  3. Avatar Kevin says:

    What is most disappointing is the social worker that can’t look past sexual abuse. My spouse and I have history of sexual abuse in childhood and after jumping through all the hoops the state put in front of us would not approve us to foster or adopt. Two social workers went so far as to say there was nothing we could do to ever be approved. Their supervisors said to clear the issues and we could reapply, but the gatekeepers stated it couldn’t be ‘fixed’. Apparently being productive members of society and 20+ years of marriage can’t beat the stigma. Even if we adopt out of state it still has to run through our home state (ICPC) so we may look at international adoption, although our heart is in the foster care system.

    • Tracy Whitney Tracy Whitney says:

      I’m sorry. The stigma is indeed strong. Were the supervisors able to give you concrete steps for how to “clear the issues?” If your heart is in the foster care system, and assuming that you’d totally check out okay otherwise, maybe asking for a specific plan for how to shut the door on your past history of abuses might be quite healing for you as well as show your desire to do your due diligence.

      • Avatar Kevin says:

        Supervisors said had to be cleared by the lower level workers, who said no way to ‘fix’ the ‘problem’. I am done working with the state, putting our resources into working with other groups trying to get someone else involved in state foster adoptions. Right now the state controls 100% and they have little to no interest in getting hard to place kiddos in homes.

  4. Pingback: The Scariest Special Need of All—Would You Adopt This Child? – Hopscotch Adoptions

  5. Avatar Cheryl says:

    We have recently learned that our adopted daughter was sexually abused. There was nothing in her files and she doesn’t know that we know. Her brother, who we also adopted told his therapist.
    I agree with this article that we were very fearful of adopting a child that has been abused sexually but now that we know, it’s only deepened our love for her. We knew she was an amazing 13 year old when we met her. Now we are more proud of her than ever.
    I wise I could take away this terrible burden that she carries, and I know we are all on an unknown path. But I also know that I would not trade the opportunity to love these kids for anything in the world. Pray for us.

    • Tracy Whitney Tracy Whitney says:

      Cheryl, thank you so much for sharing your experience. It sounds like your daughter is a strong kid with a survivor spirit and that you are a safe place for her to heal and process. It might still be scary but you are together to work through it. Best wishes to you all as you grow together.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to Top ↑

Content created by Creating a Family. And remember, there are no guarantees in adoption or infertility treatment. The information provided or referenced on this website should be used only as part of an overall plan to help educate you about the joys and challenges of adopting a child or dealing with infertility. Although the following seems obvious, our attorney insists that we tell you specifically that the information provided on this site may not be appropriate or applicable to you, and despite our best efforts, it may contain errors or important omissions. You should rely only upon the professionals you employ to assist you directly with your individual circumstances. CREATING A FAMILY DOES NOT WARRANT THE INFORMATION OR MATERIALS contained or referenced on this website. CREATING A FAMILY EXPRESSLY DISCLAIMS LIABILITY FOR ERRORS or omissions in this information and materials and PROVIDES NO WARRANTY OF ANY KIND, implied, express or statutory. IN NO EVENT WILL CREATING A FAMILY BE LIABLE FOR ANY DAMAGES, including without limitation direct or indirect, special, incidental, or consequential damages, losses or expenses arising out of or in connection with the use of the information or materials, EVEN IF CREATING A FAMILY OR ITS AGENTS ARE NEGLIGENT AND/OR ARE ADVISED OF THE POSSIBILITY OF SUCH DAMAGES.