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How Bad is Foster Care?

April 12, 2010 permalink

Anyone with common sense knows that parental care is superior to child care by strangers, but ascertaining the magnitude of the difference requires scientific study. A group headed by Mark E Courtney looked at children who had entered foster care as teenagers and followed up at age 23/24.

The foster kids in the survey were not the most severely damaged. They mostly entered foster care as teenagers, so had more real family experience than those entering as pre-schoolers. Other exclusions in the words of the report: "Youth with developmental disabilities or severe mental illness that made it impossible for them to participate in the initial interviews and youth who were incarcerated or in a psychiatric hospital were excluded from participation. Youth were also ineligible to participate if they were on run or otherwise missing from their out-of-home care placement over the course of the field period for the initial interviews or if they were in a placement out of state." Results were compared to the earlier National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health done on the general population.

All of the comparisons between foster kids and the general population showed worse outcomes for foster care. Male involvement in the criminal justice system, six times the general population, is charted below.

Trends in Criminal Justice System Involvement among Males

There was one positive result: "We asked the Midwest Study participants to look back on their experiences while in foster care. Almost two-thirds agreed that they were lucky to have been placed, and well over half reported feeling satisfied with their experience. Almost three-quarters agreed that they were helped by their foster caregivers and almost two-thirds agreed that they were helped by their social worker."

Here are links to our copies of the executive summary and the full report, both pdf.



Study Finds More Woes Following Foster Care

Only half the youths who had turned 18 and “aged out” of foster care were employed by their mid-20s. Six in 10 men had been convicted of a crime, and three in four women, many of them with children of their own, were receiving some form of public assistance. Only six in 100 had completed even a community college degree.

Cameron Anderson
Phil Sussman for The New York Times
Cameron Anderson, 21, who went through several foster homes, completed homework in Tampa, Fla.
How young people who aged out of foster care compare with their peers

The dismal outlook for youths who are thrust into a shaky adulthood from the foster care system — now numbering some 30,000 annually — has been documented with new precision by a long-term study released Wednesday, the largest to follow such children over many years.

Researchers studied the outcomes for 602 youths in Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin, and compared them with their peers who had not been in foster care. Most youths had entered the foster care system in their early teens and then were required to leave it at 18 or, in the case of Illinois, 21.

“We took them away from their parents on the assumption that we as a society would do a better job of raising them,” said Mark Courtney, a social work researcher at the University of Washington who led the study with colleagues from the Partners for Our Children program at Washington and the Chapin Hall center at the University of Chicago. “We’ve invested a lot money and time in their care, and by many measures they’re still doing very poorly.”

Over the last decade, the federal government and many states have started to assist former foster care youths with education grants, temporary housing subsidies and, in some places, extra years of state custody and support. The new data showed that just over half of them are doing reasonably well and benefit from such aid. But they throw a spotlight, researchers said, on two groups that need more sweeping and lasting help.

About one-fourth of the people in the study, mainly women, are receiving public aid and struggling to raise their own children, usually without a high school degree. Researchers found that one in five in a second group, mainly men, are badly floundering, with multiple criminal convictions, low education and incomes and, often, mental health or substance abuse problems.

Once they leave foster care, these most troubled youths often have no reliable adults to advise them or provide emotional support, said Gary Stangler, director of the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, a private foundation. “When these kids make a mistake, it’s life altering, they have nothing to fall back on,” Mr. Stangler said.

Finding a mentor who provides “that backbone you need” has made all the difference, said Cameron Anderson, 21, of Tampa, Fla., who entered foster care at 15 after he got into trouble with the law, then lived in group homes.

Mr. Anderson, who is now in community college and works at a printer cartridge company, receives education and other financial aid that has helped him keep an apartment. But he has made some missteps since moving out on his own, he said, like not paying bills in full so he could buy shoes and hanging out with old friends who were bad influences.

Last fall, he was introduced to a mentor, an investor in Tampa, by a Casey program, Connected by 25. The two now speak daily, Mr. Anderson said, discussing “school and life in general, even to the point where he’ll say, ‘Hey, are you using protection?’ ”

Had he had such a relationship earlier, Mr. Anderson said, “it would have saved me from a ton of bridges I’ve had to cross.”

While younger children are often adopted when their parents’ rights are terminated, fewer prospective parents want to adopt teenagers. Recent research, including the new study, shows that most foster children, even though they have been removed from their homes, maintain ties with a parent or other relative. Some agencies are trying to support such ties or to locate relatives who might adopt the children or provide long-term support.

Illinois, New York, Vermont and the District of Columbia now allow youths to remain in foster care to age 21, and some states help with transitional housing.

Congress in 2008 passed a law providing matching money to states that extend foster care to age 21, something that the authors of the study call for. But in the face of large budget deficits, few states have signed on so far.

Source: New York Times