Sexual Abuse

A recent class action lawsuit filed on behalf of foster children in the state of Arizona, Sergio B. v Arizona, serves to indicate the extent of sexual abuse of children in state care. The suit alleges that over 500 of an estimated 4,000 foster children-about 12.5% of the state's foster care population-have been sexually abused while in state care. The action charges that "the acts and omissions of Defendants were done in bad faith, with malice, intent or deliberate indifference to and/or reckless disregard for the health, safety and rights of the Plaintiffs."

The sexual abuse of children in government custody appears to be a particularly widespread problem. In Maryland, a 1992 study found that substantiated allegations of sexual abuse in foster care are four times higher than those found among the general population (Benedict & Zuravin, 1992). A followup study of a sample group of foster children found that nearly 50% of the substantiated maltreatment reports involved sexual abuse. Foster fathers or other foster family members were found to be the perpetrators in over two-thirds of the substantiated cases, while other foster children in the home were determined to be the perpetrator in only 20% of the incidents (Benedict, et al., 1996).

In Kentucky, sex abuse in foster care was "all over the newspapers," according to department head Larry Michalczyk. The former Commissioner explained that within a few years of time, his state saw a child die while in residential placement, a lawsuit filed against a DSS staff member on behalf of a foster child, and legislative inquiries into its child protection system (Committee on Ways and Means, 1991). Kentucky would prove to be a problematic state. Lowry points out that case reviews conducted in conjunction with a Children's Rights action found that only 55% of the children in the state's care had legally mandated case plans (Subcommittee on Public Assistance and Unemployment Compensation and the Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families, 1988).

Perhaps the most significant indicator of the true extent of sexual abuse in foster care was a survey of alumni of what was described as an "exemplary" and "model" program in the Pacific Northwest, observed Richard Wexler during recent Senate hearings. "In this lavishly-funded program caseloads were kept low and both workers and foster parents got special training. This was not ordinary foster care, this was Cadillac Foster Care" he explained. In this "exemplary" program, 24% of the girls responding to a survey said they were victims of actual or attempted sexual abuse in the one home in which they had stayed the longest. Significantly, they were not even asked about the other foster homes in which they had stayed (Subcommittee on Children and Families, U.S. Senate, 1995).

Children's Rights has initiated a number of successful civil suits against foster care and child welfare systems. One such suit was brought against the Illinois foster care system by attorney Benjamin Wolf, who instituted the legal action after concluding that the state's foster care system functioned as "a laboratory experiment to produce the sexual abuse of children" (Subcommittee on Children and Families, U.S. Senate, 1995). Yet, by many accounts, the sexual abuse of children in the state's care has increased along with the increase in placements, successful lawsuits notwithstanding. Even Patrick Murphy, the outspoken Cook County Public Guardian, admits that sexual abuse of children in the care of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services has probably increased (Golden, 1997).


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