Abused Further By the Law

Recently I got blindsided by two instances of abuse in my personal world. One came from my niece and the other from the wife of a friend. Both cases gave me a painful reminder of how our foster children are being abused while in foster care.

My niece’s experience is probably a pervasive problem in the workplace. She works in the sciences industry.  When she started working with the company, her male supervisor had been pleasant. As some point, he asked my niece out.  She politely said no. He immediately became hostile, yelling at her at times and making the work environment very uncomfortable. My niece is 25 years old, but she wasn’t prepared to handle this type of workplace abuse. She ended up leaving the company.  

How does that tie into the abuses that foster children suffer?  Here’s how:

All too often adults treat children, especially foster children, like little adults. They aren’t. They are children who look up to adults in general for guidance and protection. Children also have this endearing yet frightening trust in almost everyone. This makes them vulnerable to abuse. They may believe that the abusive behavior, including sexual abuse, is normal. They may sense that something isn’t quite right, but because they can’t articulate these thoughts, children will often hide them. 

I have no idea to whom, if anyone, my niece told about her situation. It certainly wasn’t common knowledge within the family until months later after she had quit. My niece has been to college and has travelled to other countries. She’s sharp and educated, yet she is just now coming to grips with her abuse. 

Now imagine a foster child who is being abused. How likely is it that they will tell someone? If the abuse is happening in the home, the child may not tell the other parent for many reasons, not the least being their fear that they may receive more abuse. Children aren’t stupid. They may not be able to speak about their fears and abuse, but they know the possible results. They know what sets off a parent or relative. 

Unfortunately, we still have too many laws that limit when a child can come forward to tell about their abuse and find some justice. Recently an article came out that reveals that the average age when a person will start to share about their abuse is when they are in their 50s. One state has a law where the victim is given just two years from the time of the incident to come forward and make a formal complain. 

Jane E. Palmer covered state laws from several states in her article “New Laws Give Victims More Time to Report Rape or Sexual Assault – even Jeffrey Epstein’s”. The Child Victims Act in New York now gives abuse victims until age 28 to report a childhood assault. The law “also allows more time for victims to sue alleged perpetrators or negligent institutions – until age 55.” 

Palmer highlighted that as of the summer of 2019, eight states have no restrictions on the time frame when an abuse victim can step forward. Again this acknowledges in part the reality that many, if not most, abuse victims do not step forward until they are in their 40s or 50s. The reasons for this delay would require a completely new column.    

I had mentioned two incidents that prompted me to write this article. The second incident came from the wife of a dear friend of mine. “Susan” had been miserable at her job for years. Family, friends and even her physicians had listened to her complaints about how unhappy she was at her job. Sadly, though, a necessary step for any victim is to get to that place where they are so unsatisfied, frustrated and/or discontented with their feelings that they start looking for ways to get rid of these terrible feelings. 

No one wants to see family and friends suffering. It’s not that I and others didn’t try to talk to Susan about her sad situation. We did, but a victim has to be on board with the idea that they were victims. All too often victims will look for bright spots saying things like, “Well, this week my boss didn’t yell at me.” or “She can be a nice person.” 

You have probably heard about the Stockholm Syndrome, where a prisoner will end up identifying with their jailer/abuser and have probably related this psychological trauma just to hostage situations.  However, over the years psychiatrists have expanded the effects of this trauma to include many more situations involving abused children, incest victims, and at the work place; it’s about relationships that are controlling or intimidating. A feeling of being trapped can trigger this syndrome. It can occur at home, school or work -- places where a person may feel obligated to remain despite their fears or urge to flee or take flight. The situation can involve a child who is beholden to an abusive parent, foster parent or teacher, or a worker who feels trapped because the pay allows them to feel just comfortable enough not to be dissatisfied with their work environment despite years of verbal, emotional or sexual harassment. 

Susan was fortunate that she took a harassment training course that came with a checklist of issues that occur because of abuse. For the first time, she knew that the information was coming from a verified source and could see all of the issues she had been experiencing for years laid out in a checklist. The impact of years of abuse was listed in black and white, and Susan finally realized that she had been and still was being abused. She’s now taken steps to fight back against her abusers, including considering legal attention. Foster children rarely feel so emboldened to talk about their abuses and are thus unable to fight back. The end result?  Nearly one in three foster children is abused while in the system. And those are just the ones we know about. 

One of the ways that foster child abuse flourishes in the system is that abusers can take advantage of the nomadic life of foster children. These children move on average twice a year. Some have reported being moved more than five times during a year. This movement can allow a child to leave a safe haven such as a school where they felt trusting enough to tell a teacher about an abuse or where school officials could detect that some form of abuse had taken place. Abusers count on the natural fear and trust children have toward an adult and this constant movement to hide their abusive ways. 

Getting children out of the system is critically important. Family finding does this by locating a child’s family members, whether they are living in the U.S. or in some other country. Once those relatives have been notified, the hope and often outcome is that at least one relative will step forward and care for the child. While placement with a family member doesn’t always guarantee a happy ending, it is the intent of foster care agencies to pace a foster child with their relatives whenever possible. 

That’s the work of our charitable non-profit, identifying and locating a child’s parent, aunt or grandparent. We never work directly with the children, only the agencies.   

If you find the reality of this abuse upsetting, take some form of action. Donate to a charity such as Forever Homes for Foster Kids that helps foster children be reunited with family members. Volunteer your time. Sign up to be a foster or adoptive parent. Push to get your state law changed so that there are no limitations to when an abuse victim can step forward. Foster children need more people to take action. They deserve our time and attention. It’s time to save them.