In my last post I wrote about how worries regarding the potential for sexual abuse can keep people from providing foster care. I provided some background information it’s good to know before providing foster care for a child who may have been sexually abused. I think having a healthy perspective about this issue is very important. I also think it’s vitally important to create a safe environment in your home with the potential for sexual abuse in mind. For us, that has been striking the right balance between openness, honesty, and privacy. Here’s how we do it.
Specific to foster families:
Respect birth order when taking foster kids. I know not everybody is going to agree with me about this and I’m okay with that. God has blessed the ministry of many families who have chosen to take kids out of birth order. I’m not arguing against that if you feel called to that and you have the skills and resources to ensure the safety of all kids in your home. But for our family, respecting birth order has been a big part of how we prevent sexual abuse from happening in our home. We always want our kids to be big enough and old enough to know what is appropriate and be able to say “no” to things they know are wrong. This is a decision we make for the protection of our kids and we don’t let pressure from an agency that wants to place older kids in our home push us into something we aren’t comfortable with. If you feel called to take kids older than your kids, do it with much prayer and with honest conversations about how you’ll protect your kids. If you don’t feel called to take kids older than your kids, don’t be pressured into it and work to recruit foster families who are in a position to take those kids you can’t.
Ask about a foster chid’s history. When you are called about a child who may be placed in your home, you need to ask very specific questions. Don’t feel bad about being nosey. If a caseworker can’t give you that information for whatever reason, they will tell you that. You also need to assume that nobody has the whole story on this child yet. Even if nobody knows about a history of sexual abuse, that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been one. It’s good to have a plan for how to help that child with healthy boundaries and be sure they’re getting the counseling help they require. Because you may not always know the full story, it’s important to have good boundaries in place for your family in general.
Have a safety plan. If you become aware that a child in your home had been abused and sexually acting out, how would you handle it? You need to think through your resources and how you’re going to keep everybody safe. Do other children in the home know what is appropriate and inappropriate? Do you have counseling help available? Do you have a respite provider that can handle children with those issues when you need a break? Are you able to adequately supervise interactions between children? Does every child have privacy in the bathroom and when they get dressed? You need to have answers for these kinds of questions before you take a placement if there’s any potential for issues (which you may or may not know ahead of time).
For every family:
Talk honestly with your kids about their bodies. Bodies are not shameful. The words we use to identify our body parts are not shameful. Use the correct words with your kids from as early a time as possible. Tell them those parts are special and private. There is never too young an age to start having that conversation. There shouldn’t be one special day where you have the birds and bees talk and expect that to cover it. This is an ongoing conversation you have with a child about the beauty and functionality of their body from their infancy through their young adulthood.
Be a person your kids can talk to. Create times for your kids to ask questions that may be on their minds. Let them know that you aren’t embarrassed to talk about sex. Tell them that if they saw something, heard something or had something done to them that they felt uncomfortable about, they need to talk to you about it. Create a climate in your home where a child would feel safe coming to you without fear.
Identify other safe people your kids can talk to. If something happened at school, they can talk to a trusted teacher. Talk about what relatives or family friends or leaders at church would be okay to talk to if they had a question or didn’t feel comfortable coming to Mom and Dad. Ultimately we want them to talk to us, but there may be a reason why that doesn’t feel safe to them or they are in an environment where we aren’t present, so it’s good for them to know there are other people that we trust who could listen to them and help them know how to talk to us.
Tell them what response would be okay if they were inappropriately touched. Have you ever had a fire drill at your home? Have you talked to your kids about the escape routes from your house if there were a fire or about your safety plan if there were a tornado or earthquake? In the same way, you need to talk to your kids about what they should do if somebody tries to touch them inappropriately or asks to see parts of their body that should be kept private. My kids know that they should say “no” and run to Mom or the nearest trusted adult. I’ve also given them my okay to push or kick to get away. That has helped underscore to them how serious this is since we usually emphasize peaceful responses. Even my four year-old knows what parts of her body are private and what to do if someone wanted to see or touch them. I can’t ensure they would do the right thing in that situation, but I have no doubt that they would know what I would expect them to do.
Talk about who can see their body. My kids know that I am allowed to see their body. The doctor is allowed to see their body if I am present (I love that my pediatrician always tells the kids, “This is only okay for me to do because your mom is here.” We may tell our kids that it’s okay for the doctor to see them naked, but fail to think about a person who could claim to be a doctor and prey on that level of trust.). If Grandma is watching them while I’m away or the trusted babysitter is there, there may be a reason they need to see them naked depending on their age (to help them change clothes or bathe them) but outside of those reasons they don’t need to just be naked around those people. Other children do not need to see you naked. Other grown-ups do not need to see you naked. If someone asks, you come tell Mom.
Respect privacy and teach your kids to respect privacy. In our home we draw those privacy lines pretty early. Once a child is about two, I do not allow them in the bathroom with me. We do not allow kids to be in the bathroom together if one of them is bathing or using the toilet, especially kids of different genders. Once kids are out of the toddler years and able to dress themselves, we ask them to get dressed in their own room. I do not have kids in the room with me when I get dressed. (Of course there are exceptions, but these are the guidelines we try to stick to.) In all of these things, we emphasize that those body parts are special and it’s important to keep them private. It isn’t about shame or making them embarrassed, but about saying we don’t show those parts to just anybody. This is also why I do my best to limit who can change my children’s diapers, especially as they get older. I don’t want them to be in the habit of just letting anybody see them naked or touch those parts of their body. I am particularly persnickety about this with our foster kids, which is why I prefer to be called out to change diapers even when my kids are in the church nursery. It is also why I’m a big fan of early potty training.
Be observant. Do your kids seem guilty? Are they sneaking around? Do you feel like they’re hiding something? Is there a friend you don’t trust. You need to listen to your parenting gut. Know what is going on the lives of your kids. Talk to them honestly about the dangers and temptations out there. Not talking about porn won’t keep porn from being on your computer, on your tv, or at the neighbor’s house. We need to equip our kids in age appropriate ways to know how to deal with their own curiosity and help them understand that sexual desire isn’t shameful, although there are wrongs ways to try and get that desire fulfilled. It’s okay to be a little suspicious of your kids and their friends and to be observant about any changing behaviors.
Don’t overreact. Your kids are likely going to come across something you wish they hadn’t seen or heard or experienced. They need to know that isn’t a deal breaker as far as them being people of worth. They likely feel guilty and you need to help channel that guilt into repentance and forgiveness or righteous anger depending on the situation. Don’t jump to conclusions about what kind of people they are because they made a mistake. Don’t let them jump to conclusions either. Remember that if they’re coming to you to confess, you don’t want to discourage that courageous act. If you caught them doing something dumb, remember that they may feel some relief at being caught and need to know you still love them.
In this day and age, choosing not to be a foster family doesn’t protect you from the possibility that sexual abuse can impact the life of your child. We can’t prevent every negative influence or experience. But we can do our best to give our kids the tools to know how to handle these kinds of situations. By talking openly and honestly with our kids we help prepare them and create a safer environment for our children and for children who may enter our home.