Childhood Sexual Abuse and Its Link to Homelessness

Homelessness has become a tragically familiar part of our national landscape. While life on the streets is grim for both men and women, homeless women have a particularly difficult time. The struggle they face often extends back to their childhoods. A surprisingly large number of homeless women have suffered sexual abuse and severe neglect as children. At least 40 percent of the homeless mentally-ill women I interviewed for my book Silent Voices: People with Mental Disorders on the Street reported this. I say “at least” because many women didn’t want to talk about their pasts, so the 40 percent figure is probably conservative. Most abused girls don’t become homeless. However, some do. In the next several blogs I’ll discuss the effects of sexual abuse on children and teenage girls to illustrate how these traumas sometimes lead to a life on the streets as adults.

People are often surprised to learn just how prevalent childhood sexual abuse is. Studies, using different definitions, report that 25 percent of women had been sexually abused as children. Factors that seem to influence the impact of the abuse on the child’s life include when it happened, the duration and intrusiveness of the abuse, the relationship of the abuser to the child, and the presence of protective adults. Many girls, particularly in the case of moderate to severe abuse, show signs of detachment, social isolation, and mistrust of adults. They may have insomnia and nightmares, and may find it so difficult to concentrate that they fall behind in school. Depression, anxiety and dissociation are also common consequences. In what can only be regarded as a cruel irony, many girls feel ashamed and guilty, sometimes feeling complicit, despite the fact that they are the victims not the perpetrators of this abuse. The resultant conviction that they have no right to live a good life is often the most powerful and destructive consequence of this, affecting the entire course of their lives.

In many cases the child feels too frightened, ashamed, or guilty to disclose what is happening to her. When a father or stepfather is the abuser, the girl may feel, in addition, that she needs to protect him, either out of love, fear, or other feelings. Sometimes the child’s mother is so distracted by the problems in her own life that she fails to recognize that she is actually putting her daughter in harm’s way. If and when she does, she may turn a blind eye to what is happening, wanting to protect her own relationship with her husband or boyfriend.

Most abuse is not recognized by schools, churches, welfare agencies, or other organizations. A teacher may see a child’s symptoms of distress or that she is falling behind but not connect it to the possibility of abuse or not want to stir up trouble in the absence of hard evidence. When teachers do make the connection and report their suspicions to a welfare agency, the latter often can’t obtain compelling evidence in the absence of the child’s willingness to disclose the cause of her suffering. In other scenarios, the agency is simply too burdened with more obvious cases and lacks the resources to conduct the kind of patient, sensitive, thoughtful investigation that is needed to confirm everyone’s suspicions in the less obvious ones.

But documenting the abuse is just the first step in a long process. Even when a positive conclusion can be drawn, the question of what to do about it is always complicated. Should the child be removed from the family? Should the father or stepfather, if the perpetrator, be removed from the house or sentenced to a prison term? How should the courts be involved, and how should they gather and sift the evidence? What kind of treatment should the child receive? Where can programs be found that have staff who are experienced enough to provide such treatment? These questions may seem to have obvious answers in the abstract, but not in the nitty-gritty of real-life situations.

Of the homeless women in my book, Barbara was abducted and abused by her father. Rose was abused by several of the men her mother brought into the house. Rebecca was raped by her stepfather so viciously that her vagina needed to be repaired in the emergency room. Other women told me they had been abused but didn’t feel comfortable relating the specifics. All of the women I interviewed who had been sexually abused and became homeless had experienced this abuse in a situation that was also profoundly neglectful. No one was present to protect the child. In almost every one of these situations, it was the combined effects of abuse and neglect that had such enduring effects. Each of the girls was forever scarred. Each entered adolescence traumatized and ready to act out in various ways.

In my next post I will discuss how this abuse often plays out when the girl becomes a teenager.

Do you know someone with a similar story?