Sex Abuse and the Foster Care System

The foster care system is tasked with protecting the welfare of children suffering from abuse and neglect. However, many children taken from their families are subjected to sexual abuse and left in a more vulnerable and traumatized state. Several localized studies demonstrate the startling implications of the pervasiveness of sexual abuse in the foster care system:

  • A John Hopkins University study of a group of foster children in Maryland found that children in foster care are four times more likely to be sexually abused than their peers not in this setting, and children in group homes are 28 times more likely to be abused.
  • An Oregon and Washington state study determined that almost one-third of foster children reported abuse by a foster parent or another adult in the home.
  • Researchers of a study of investigations of abuse in New Jersey foster homes, concluded that “no assurances can be given” that any foster child in the state is safe.

More than half of child sex trafficking victims recovered through FBI raids across the U.S. in 2013 were from foster care or group homes. This statistic brings to light the failure of the system to address the recurring sexual exploitation of minors while in their protection. Predators immediately recognize that children in foster care are especially accessible to them, because the adults charged with protecting them are not doing so.

The foster care system plays a significant role in the growing epidemic of reported institutional sexual abuse of minors. A report completed by the New Jersey Office of Child Advocacy included a study that demonstrated the relationship of the perpetrator of abuse to the victim. Of the child cases studied, 37.4% of perpetrators were institution staff, 36.5% were foster parents, and 20% where relatives of the victim. The results beg the question: is there a higher risk of sexual abuse in an institutional setting then in an abusive home environment provided by a relative?

The Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS) reported that in 2017, more than 669,00 minors were served in the US foster care system. Many states have been found guilty of failing to protect foster children in their care, specifically by failing to respond to allegations of sexual abuse and have paid out huge cash settlements to victims.

Racial Disparity in the Foster Care System

Racial Disparities exist at every level of the child welfare system. A report on African American Children in the foster care system provided by the Government Accountability Office (GAO),  states that in 2004, African American children represented more than one-third of children in foster care in America, despite accounting for only 15% of the entire child population. Women of color are more likely to be reported to the child abuse hotline and investigated for child abuse and neglect. They are the group with the highest number of substantiated cases, and as a result, are at the greatest likelihood to have their children removed from their care.

In many states neglect is defined almost exclusively by the ability to provide for the child financially; homelessness as the result of non-payment of rent, and lack of adequate access to food are grounds for removal for neglect.  Instead of the child protection agencies providing needed supports to keep the family safely intact, removal of children becomes an all too common occurrence in certain communities. Even if the children end up in placements that do not lead to sexual abuse, the outcomes are still not positive. Children in foster care, due to issues either before or after removal from their home, have disproportionately high rates of physical, developmental, and mental health problems and often have many unmet medical and mental health care needs.


Whether the social structure is the juvenile detention system, the Catholic Church or the foster care system, when they fail to address the problem of sexual abuse occurring within their institutions, they don’t just fail to prevent harm, they propagate harm.  When it comes to foster care, this leaves children without fit homes, as well as a slim chance of a nurturing and supportive childhood.

The system would be better equipped to achieve its objective of providing fit environments for children in crisis if they put more preventative measures in place. These measures could include:

  • stricter screening of caregivers
  • a more extensive protocol to combat and investigate abuse claims
  • a higher rate of prosecution for crimes committed in an institutional setting

It is important that the light of day is shed on this topic, so that the foster care system can take actions to protect the children in their charge and their futures.

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