The child welfare system is mandated to ensure the safety of the children in its care. For a variety of complex reasons, this is not an easy task, with sobering potentially horrific consequences if and when the system fails to meet this responsibility. Although statistics are elusive, some estimates suggest that children in foster care are four times more likely to be abused than children living with their parents. The causes of this pervasive problem are more easily understood than addressed.
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Children who have been the victims of abuse are vulnerable to continuing the cycle of abuse, either as perpetrators or victims or both. They may re-enact traumatic experiences out of anxiety and/or attempts at mastery. Having been the helpless victim, they may seek comfort in taking on the role of the aggressor. Alternatively, they may be unerringly drawn to those who will aggress against them because they know no other way of seeking or maintaining attention.
The chances of child on child abuse are heightened in situations such as group homes or foster family placements with multiple children. When the ratio of adults to children is low, those charged with the care of these children simply do not have the time to provide the close attention and supervision needed for adequate, let alone therapeutic care. Indeed, in many cases, the adults—staff and foster parents alike—are asked to care for these children and teens without training in interventions designed to prevent further abuse. Although far from easy solutions to child on child abuse, more homes and more training for the adults caring for foster children would begin to address the problem.
The situation is different when it is the adults caring for these children who perpetuate the abuse. The recent conviction of a former foster parent in Pennsylvania on fifteen counts involving sexual molestation of five children is a painful reminder that foster care does not always guarantee children’s safety. Three of the five children were foster children who had been placed in his home for safety and protection. Sadly, some of the abusive acts might have been prevented if earlier complaints from children had been taken more seriously.
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Children’s allegations of mistreatment at the hands of other children or adults stir many and complex feelings, too often making it hard—nay, sometimes impossible—for us to hear what they are saying. This, along with the scarcity of resources for recruiting, screening, and training staff, is surely a contributing factor to the heightened incidence of abuse in the foster care system. However, understanding the contributing factors is merely an exercise unless we are willing to act on what we know to protect vulnerable children. We, as members of a community that values the dignity and promotes the right to safety of all children, must not contribute to the problem by blaming or turning away from the child welfare system. What the children and the system alike need to hear from all of us is, “Tell me how I can help.”
By Toni Heineman