For foster carers
For Family & Friends, Workers
What to do if your foster child discloses sexual abuse
It is often the case that when a child comes into foster care that very little is known about his/her background. As a foster parent you may be told little more than the ostensible reason for placement, the child's age, composition of the family or where his/her school is. This is not because the foster care agency is being secretive, simply the agency itself is given little information at the time of referral.
So it may be that as your foster child settles with you and becomes more comfortable and relaxed in your home, s/he will begin to give you some understanding about his/her experiences and this may well include disclosures of abuse.
It will not matter whether the abuse is physical, emotional or sexual the following suggestions can apply equally well to all three forms of abuse.
- Be available.
Give the child the emotional space to say what s/he wants to and that includes telling you as much (or as little) as s/he wants to.
Don't put your interpretation onto what you are being told. Think of it as being like a sponge and "soaking" up what the child is saying. This will be important later as you report what you have been told to your foster care worker.
- Don't show horror or revulsion.
Certainly let the child know that you empathise but try not to pass on to the child that you have a judgement about what you are being told. It is entirely possible that your foster child has already made a judgement on the abuse and this is partly why you are being told. The child wants it to stop and in a child's mind the best action is to tell an adult.
- Don't promise that you won't tell as a condition of being told.
The request "if I tell you something will you promise not to tell [mummy or anyone]" is usually put quite unambiguously so an adult can easily recognise that he/she is probably about to be asked to maintain secrecy about something serious. What transpires may not be abuse but if a caregiver is able sensitively to convey to the child that s/he cannot make a promise like that without knowing what the "something" is, you will not go far wrong.
It is better that a foster parent helps the child to understand that this information cannot be kept secret. It is not fair to the child and that, while it was brave of the child to tell, that won't stop the abuse from happening again. Remember that the child may have been threatened with dire consequences if the abuse is disclosed and it is possible you will need to reassure the child before you tell another professional.
- Inform your foster care worker.
All children coming into foster care will have an agency worker. If the disclosure occurs after hours (and it probably will) inform your agency's on-call worker. You will be asked for details of the disclosure when it happened, by whom and perhaps how often.
It is important to pass the information on to the agency straight away because of the implications for access or return home (for example if the child is in planned respite you may inadvertently permit the child to return to an abusive situation). It will be up to the on-call worker or foster care worker to take the matter further. "Further" will involve informing Protective Services who will, in turn, involve the police. Remember physical and sexual abuse are criminal acts and charges against the perpetrator may occur.
When a child is disclosing abuse, you should remember what your role is.
The child is telling you because s/he trusts you. The child trusts you to understand, to protect and to make it better. A pretty tall order maybe. If you can stop yourself from asking questions, later you cannot be accused of putting words into the child's mouth. The police and the courts would call that "contaminating the evidence". Remember both Protective Services workers and the police have been trained to uncover information in such a way that the child is not open to suggestibility. You are trained to support, protect and care for the child. Those skills will be needed in the days and weeks ahead after your foster child has disclosed.
Protecting yourself against accusations of sexual abuse
A foster child has no history with you. When you first met you were strangers to one another. Any loyalty the child has for you will have been earned by you over time. The child will respond to you at first in the way that has been learned in his/her family of origin. Be aware that you are welcoming a complete stranger into your home every time you have a placement and be protective of yourself and your family in your interactions with your foster children.
- It is preferable if the foster father does not bathe the child alone.
- Unless the child is very young, encourage the child to wash his/her own genitalia (two year olds can be taught to "wash between your legs").
- Don't spend large amounts of time alone with the child in his/her bedroom. Have your spouse or another child around.
- Be clear about privacy for yourself and the child. Only enter the toilet to wipe the bottom of a young child. Encourage the child who is independent with toileting, to have the toilet and bathroom doors closed. When you have a foster child, close your bedroom door and make it clear to the foster child (and perhaps your own also) that a person's bedroom is their own private space and anyone entering should knock first (and that includes you).
- If you and your family are accustomed to walking around the house naked - don't.
- Trust your own "gut" reactions. If a child says or does something which makes you feel uncomfortable, be quite matter-of-fact but let the child know that "in this house we don't say (or do) that". Then tell your foster care worker - it may be one of the first signs that your foster child has experienced sexual abuse.
- Don't sleep in the same bed with your foster child. You may need to find alternative ways to comfort a distressed child at bed time, for example, leaving on a light, giving the child a favourite toy, reading a story.