Friday, May 20, 2011

Guest Blogger: Parenting a victim of sexual abuse

Introducing a fellow Foster Parent.. to discuss some of the more "uncomfortable" aspects of being a parent and her tips/tricks to get you through it:
We never intended to be foster parents. We certainly never intended to foster a severely sexually abused young girl…she was outside literally ALL of our placement criteria. Yet, as we learned, foster care is a world where many things we don’t expect happen. So it was that in mid-2010 we took a foster placement of a beautiful 3yo girl named Tara (NOT her real name) and we have learned some very sad and disturbing lessons about the affects of Sexual Abuse (SA) and the realities of helping such a child heal.Our approach from the start was to model normal family interactions and to include her in our very affectionate family as much as she was comfortable with, while being vigilant and providing redirection or instruction as needed. We did not share the nature of the abuse Tara suffered with anyone not strictly necessary; we did not want her to be stigmatized as she had been in her previous foster home. Within mere days Tara blossomed. She was starved for “normal” affection and attention and seeing her personality emerge was really a great feeling. Not everything was goodness and light, however.

While we knew Tara’s SA history, I was still taken completely by surprise the first time Tara disclosed to me. As she became more comfortable the disclosures of SA began and quickly increased in frequency; usually while getting ready for bed, rocking or bathing. I talked to Tara’s therapist as well as our local Children’s Assessment Center for advice on how to handle these disclosures in a way that preserved the integrity of the disclosure for the case while also provided Tara with the appropriate comforting responses. The guidelines that came from these discussions served me well:

  • Make it Safe: Welcome your child’s statements or questions about their birth family. Provide the child with opportunities to talk about anything that comes to their minds. As hard are some things are to hear just remember: if they can’t talk it out, they will act it out.
  • Be calm: Your first reaction will set the stage either inviting the child to go on, or shutting them down. Talk of sexual goings on is taboo to many of us and your instinct may be to recoil and change the subject, particularly when taken by surprise. Make every effort to suppress that instinct.
  • Listen! Make eye contact, nod, try for an expression of “caring, polite interest”. I would consciously try to note key information in my head while listening so I could report the details accurately.
  • Allow the child to lead the conversation and allow them to end it when they want to. Our FD would actually say “I don’t want to talk about it anymore.” When she was done. Respect the child’s boundaries.
  • If the child is willing to engage in dialog, ask open ended questions only: what happened then? What happened next? Where were you? Can you show me? How did that make you feel? Believe me, I know you don’t want to hear or see ANY of the answers to these questions (I have images in my head that STILL make me think “that can’t be right, can it?”) but it is important to get details if the child is willing and able to provide them. You can cry later.
  • Avoid leading questions: It is important to avoid even the appearance of planting ideas or leading the child. Don’t say “Did so-and-so do that?” or even “that must have been…” If you couldn’t understand the child ask them to repeat rather than saying what you thought heard.
  • After the child relays the facts, thank the child for telling you, acknowledge that it’s hard to tell secrets, remind them that secrets are bad and telling the secrets is the right thing to do, reassure them nothing that happened was their fault. Offer consolation (“I’m sorry that happened to you.”), validate the child’s feelings (“I would have been scared too.”) and, if the child is comfortable, hold and rock the child while reassuring them you still care about them.
The hardest thing for me was that our FD would tell me something her daddy (or others) had done to her and then ask “did your daddy do that to you?” This question is fraught with ‘was it just me’ and ‘was it my fault’ undertones. Always be honest and gentle. In this case I said ‘no, honey, my daddy didn’t do that. Daddy’s are not supposed to do that, it was wrong for daddy to do that.’ If faced with a hard question take a moment to compose your answers. It’s also OK to say “I don’t know”. I used “I don’t know” whenever she asked a “why did he/they…” question and then followed immediately with a validation that it was wrong, bad and not her fault.

What to do afterwards:
  • IMMEDIATELY document the conversation, get down all the details while they are fresh. Report the facts and only the facts. For example:
  • Communicate the disclosure to the appropriate party: Our case worker had us send the disclosure via email and she confirmed by return receipt that they were relayed to CPS (due to an on going investigation). Some agencies ask the FP to report directly to CPS.
  • Let yourself feel. I found that the efforts of maintaining calmness during the disclosure needed an offsetting vent for the rage and sadness. I would talk to my husband, another foster parent, run on the treadmill or just take a bath and cry.
There are few things that are worse for any parent than dealing with a disclosure of sexual abuse. However, as we have seen in our experience with Tara, children can heal from even the most heinous abuse when given an environment in which they feel safe to process and deal with their experiences. We are thrilled to report that after 10 months in our home Tara was able to be safely reunited with her brother, who had been placed seperately, and continues to do wonderfully in their pre-adoptive placement.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this resource. As an adult survivor of sexual abuse, I can say that this is something that I could've really used to help me heal.

    Another suggestion might be to ask the child to draw, rather than describe in words. Especially if the child feels embarrassed or shamed about vocalizing what has happened, drawing it can help lead the discussion. As an adult, I'm a little shamed still about explaining in detail what happened. And I also feel guilty, like I need to shield the listener from something hurtful. Talking through pictures can soften the agony of retelling the story.

    Pictures can also help keep memories in perspective. When a child has been abused, it's not uncommon for the child to disassociate during the abuse. Memories start to blur, and then it's hard to remember did the abuse happen twice? Or twenty times? By visualizing other details, it's easier to separate the memories into their own distinct instances. I think it's important to be able to break your abuse memories into digestable chunks to process, rather than a giant snowball that you can't wrap your arms around.

    You can see my story at:



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