When Your Child Has Been Abused

John Paul the Great’s letter on the vocation and dignity of Catholic women, Mulieris Dignitatem, is a powerful source of encouragement, particularly for those who embrace the call to authentic femininity. It gives us a glimpse of the true splendor and beauty of each woman’s call to holy advocacy and service. In the words of the Second Vatican Council documents, “Women impregnated with the Spirit of the Gospel can do much to aid humanity in not falling.”

This popular quote has often been on my mind lately, as I have listened to the stories of adoptive mothers who are struggling to reconcile our calling to “aid … in not falling” with the task at hand: to participate in the redemption of young souls who have already been caused to fall.

Innocence Lost

Parents have a solemn responsibility to teach their children about God and His Church, and ensure that they receive at an early age all the graces available to them so that they might continue to grow up strong and mature in the faith. This challenge is hard enough for parents raising children entrusted to them from the womb. For adoptive parents, the task can be overwhelming. Genetic predispositions, pre-placement environmental influences, and emotional barriers stemming from loss and grief may not surface until years after the adoption is finalized.


Tragically, some barriers can be even more menacing and potentially destructive. In the past week I’ve encountered two different families — one black, one white — in which the children’s history of sexual abuse came up months or even years after placement in ways that nearly destroyed the entire family. In one case, an adoptive father committed suicide because he did not know how to defend himself from the baseless accusations of the three girls he and his wife had adopted. (Only later was it revealed that the children had been abused by their family of origin.)

While children don’t generally make up stories of abuse out of thin air, it is not unprecedented for a previously abused child to “turn” on a safe person out of displaced anger or spite. (This is especially common with older foster children who use such accusations to manipulate and control foster parents and/or social workers.) In these cases, careful documentation and close contact with a social worker or therapist is critical to safeguard the safety of all concerned.

In the second instance I encountered, a single mother who had fostered eight children, while in the process of adopting two of them, discovered that her babysitter had violated the boys. They began acting out on other children, and ultimately were taken from the foster mother’s care. Years later, she still finds it difficult to forgive herself for not seeing it, not doing more to help them. All she could do was focus on the little children in her care that she could help.

Spotting the Abuse

Sadly, children who have been abused when they are young have scars that make them vulnerable to subsequent abuse. So sorting out the real threats from the fears is very important, and often requires the help of a trained professional. However, it is usually the parent (adoptive or foster parents included) who first see signs that the child has unresolved trauma. Signs include:

  • Child acts out in ways that are sexually suggestive or physically aggressive
  • Child has persistent nightmares or bedwetting (age 5+)
  • Child touches self or others inappropriately and/or compulsively
  • Child is suddenly fearful or overly compliant around another adult (80 percent of molested children know their abusers — family friends, teachers, extended family members, etc.)
  • Child is suddenly fearful of changing clothes or venturing outside home (to school or babysitter’s)
  • Child draws disturbing images (or reenacts these stories with dolls)
  • (In teenagers), child suddenly loses interest in her appearance, and/or alienates him or herself from friends and family

Additional information may be found at http://www.helpguide.org/mental/child_abuse_physical_emotional_sexual_neglect.htm

As adoptive parents — particularly parents of older adoptees with a vague history of neglect and/or abuse — we must steel ourselves for the possibility that the time may come when we are asked to participate in the painful process of redemption for our children. We may find ourselves having to re-direct our children again and again, and get for them (and ourselves) the help needed to resolve and receive healing for the violations they received before they came to us (or even, God forbid, at the hands of a third party while under our care). These wounds go deep, and leave a scar that may make them unwitting targets for subsequent abuse.

What Should You Do If You Suspect Your Child Has Been Abused?

First, pray and seek counsel so you can think clearly and react calmly. It is crucial that you be spiritually strong for the child. You are being called to model authentic love for a child who has suffered at the hands of the counterfeit. While you are getting help for your child, go to daily Mass if you can; pray the Rosary and have others do the same on your behalf (though be careful to protect the child’s privacy as much as possible when you make your request known).

Assure your child that you love him or her, and that you are going to help him or her. Nothing he tells you will make you angry with him, or make you love her less. Be careful not to react with anger or disgust if you witness an “acting out” episode — see it for the cry of help that it is. For your own safety and that of your child, carefully document in writing how, when, and where you encounter signs of abuse.

051208_lead_today.jpgSecond, consider the safety of the other children in the family. Children who have experienced sexual abuse frequently abuse younger children. You may need to install door alarms or other safety devices, and take other safety precautions (such as not bathing the children together or allowing them to be left alone in a room together). Children can and do heal from all kinds of abuse — however, such healing does not occur overnight. It may be necessary to have the child placed temporarily or even permanently in a home where no other children are present, for his own good and for the safety of the other children in the home.

Third, get professional help for the child. As a parent, you must find the truth and get your child the help he or she needs — the sooner the better. Catholic therapists who specialize in sexual abuse may be found at http://www.catholictherapists.com/. If no qualified Catholic counselors are in your area, Pastoral Solutions (http://www.exceptionalmarriages.com/services.htm) offers telecounseling.

Fourth, protect the child’s privacy as much as possible without endangering others. If you have a social worker, consult with him or her about what you have observed and get his or her recommendations for next steps. Again, be sure to make careful records of when, where, and what you have observed. This information is too crucial to entrust to memory.

If your child has been “acting out” with other children in the home, make an appointment with the school counselor and/or teacher to discuss the importance of supervising children closely, especially in the bathroom and on the playground. By acknowledging that you are aware that your child has a history of abuse, you safeguard your own child’s well-being as well as that of other children.

If you suspect your child is being abused by a third party, it is absolutely critical that you trust your gut and do whatever is necessary to keep your child safe. If another child is the source of the problem, alert that child’s parents; if the children must continue to have contact with each other (such as siblings), they must be monitored continuously and closely. If you suspect your child is being abused outside the home, changing babysitters or even schools is a small price to pay for peace of mind. Once the child is safe, you may then need to file a formal report with Child Protective Services (CPS), for the sake of other children.

Suzanne Baars adds: “Eighteen states require by law that one must report suspected child abuse. Once a child is in counseling and this information is shared with the counselor, either the counselor or the parent will be required to report the matter to Child Protective Services.” Adult perpetrators will be required to leave the home — or the children will be placed in protective custody. When the perpetrator is a child, that child may need to be placed temporarily or even permanently in a home where there are no other children present.

Fifth, do not waste time in self-blame or self-doubt. You love your children, and want them to grow up to be strong, healthy Christians. You may have ambivalent feelings about what has happened — questioning whether you could have said or done anything to prevent the abuse. You may be angry with yourself for having unwittingly endangered your child, for having put him in this school or her in that daycare situation. You may be harboring hateful or even murderous thoughts about the individuals who did these things to your children, wanting more than anything for them to experience the full consequences of their actions. This is normal … but it is also harmful to hold on to these feelings.

Talk with your priest in the sacrament of reconciliation; seek out a professional counselor who can help you work through these issues so that you might be able to forgive yourself and (ultimately) the perpetrator. It is important to release yourself of that burden, so you can be free to help your children. God has entrusted a special cross to you; He is asking you to help your child find healing, and to model forgiveness. Not for the sake of the abuser, but so that those who are touched by the abuse might find peace. God bless you!

[Heidi would like to acknowledge the valuable assistance of Suzanne Baars and Dr. Gregory Popcak, who both reviewed this article prior to publication. Suzanne was especially helpful in describing the legal responsibilities of one who suspects abuse has occurred. You may contact Suzanne through “In His Image Christian Counseling Services” (http://www.conradbaars.com/SueBaarsBio.htm). ]

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