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