Impact Of Growing Up In The Foster Care System On Mental Health

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox
Updated February 20, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Free support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Human development is a complex subject, especially during the formative years. Children and adolescents from birth to 25 years of age experience the forming of new neural pathways and brain development that can shape how they view themselves, their relationships, and the world around them. For adults who grew up in the foster care system as children or teens, adverse life experiences and trauma may be common occurrences, and they can impact the brain and body substantially.   

While each child experiencing foster care may have a different experience. It might not be uncommon for them to experience multiple traumatic events. While seen as a temporary arrangement for those awaiting adoption, many children in foster care spend half their childhood and adolescent lives in group homes. Children in foster care are also at increased risk for child abuse and other forms of trauma. As a result, their mental health can be impacted as they move into adulthood.  

Understanding the mental health of foster children and teens may help foster parents, social workers, and former foster children understand how to reduce these risks and find support. 

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It’s okay to not have all the answers

What is foster care?

“Foster care” is an umbrella term in some respects, as it can describe significantly different dynamics for each child and family. Often, foster care entails a situation in which a child is cared for by someone who is not their birth or family provider. The foster parent might be a single individual, a married couple, or a family with other children. It could include relatives or a stranger. 

Though foster care is the temporary placement of a child with a different person or family, sometimes that placement becomes permanent. Foster care may become permanent when a family or individual decides to adopt the child. However, this situation might only be possible when the birth caregivers of the child are no longer available,had their rights terminated, or have signed away their rights. When a child isn’t adopted or reunited with their family by 18, they may “age out” of the system. 

Who can be a foster parent? 

Foster parents or caregivers are the people who offer their home, resources, and support to a child in need. They might also be referred to as foster families. These individuals, couples, or families provide basic needs for the child while extending safety, belonging, and love during their time together. Children in foster care may have experienced trauma at a young age, and foster carers often take classes to prepare themselves for these topics. 

In many states, someone interested in being a foster parent must obtain a license first. The process for obtaining a license to operate a foster home may involve consulting with someone from the child welfare system, like a social worker. This person may visit the home of the potential foster family, conduct interviews, perform a background check, and refer the individuals to any necessary classes or licensure programs. Once the process is complete, the agency will provide approval. 

Once approved, social services will call families to place a request for foster care based on their profile and ability. Sibling groups may be requested if they have the space for multiple children. Many foster parents do not know how long the child may stay with them, so they might keep items in stock to support the children as they arrive. 

Foster care statistics 

Neglect is the primary cause of youth foster care placement in the US. However, children might also enter the system due to abuse, a family crisis, illness, incarceration, caregiver death, or substance use. 

In some cases, a family member may voluntarily give their child up for adoption or foster care. In addition, a child can choose to be placed in the foster care system if certain conditions are met. 

Below are a few statistics to keep in mind about children in the foster care system:

  • 424,000: The number of children in foster care on any given day in the United States
  • 250,000: The number of kids placed in group homes each year
  • 23 months: The median amount of time a child spends in foster care while awaiting adoption
  • 140,899: The number of kids who were placed in more than two foster homes in their lifetime
  • Eight: The average age a child enters the foster care system
  • 20,000: The number of young people aged out of the foster care system without families every year

In addition to the above statistics, it can be beneficial to note that one-third of all children who enter the foster care system are people of color. While foster care may be the only choice for a child in some situations, it can be challenging and traumatic. Even children transitioning to a new home with all the requirements to care for their well-being and health may still face trauma, mental health challenges, and conflict.  

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources.

What challenges do children in foster care often face? 

A child may not initially understand what’s happening when they enter foster care, resulting in potential foster and adoption trauma. A few challenges children in the foster care system can face include the following. 

Grief 

Being separated from one’s biological family can be a traumatic experience for children. The loss they go through at a young age can be challenging to cope with, especially as they grieve their previous life. Even when a child is removed from an abusive or neglectful situation, they can experience grief. Grief is complex, and children often love their caregivers and expect them to care for their needs, regardless of the caregiver’s behavior or circumstances.  

Mental illness 

Children in the foster care system are more likely to develop mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The trauma they go through often predisposes them to these conditions. It may be helpful for children in these situations to receive mental health support from a trauma-informed therapist as early as possible. 

Academic challenges 

Those in the foster care system may struggle more in school than their peers. They might have lower grades, fewer academic goals, and a lower graduation rate. In some cases, they may lack the support or advocacy that other students have. 

Difficulty with the legal system 

According to the Center for Law and Social Policy, 80% of all incarcerated adults were in foster care as children or teens. As many foster children experience trauma from a young age, they may be exposed to crimes or violent situations that they may be repeatedly exposed to through rehoming or depending on visitation with their family members. In addition, many foster children live in group homes where they connect with other children who have been through trauma. Children might partake in illegal activities into adulthood to cope with these symptoms. 

Physical health challenges 

50% of children in foster care may develop a physical health challenge, including but not limited to asthma, hearing loss, visual challenges, or inflammatory conditions. 

Lack of resources 

Foster kids often don’t have the same resources that non-foster children have. They might be limited in the social events they can attend, curfew, or the platforms they can use to connect with others. In addition, they may not have the same financial resources as some families. Many foster children do not have many of their own items, as they move frequently from home to home. 

Homelessness 

Once a child ages out of the system, they have a one in four chance of experiencing homelessness within four years. Homelessness is often correlated with adverse outcomes like substance use disorders, mental illness, a loss of self-esteem, violence, and a higher chance of risky behavior. 

Youth homelessness prevention can be valuable in these cases. In addition, families willing to adopt or foster older teens may positively impact the life of a child trying their best against a difficult situation out of their control. 

If you’re an LGBTQ+ youth in crisis, contact The Trevor Project hotline by calling 1-866-488-7386 or texting “START” to 678-678. You can also use their online chat. 

Unemployment 

Former foster youth may struggle with unemployment. About 47% to 69% of those who went through the foster care system are unemployed as young adults. Unemployment can cause depression and contribute to stress, and it can be challenging for someone who hasn’t learned many skills to help them into adulthood. 

Abuse 

Foster children can be exposed to physical, psychological, emotional, sexual, or verbal abuse from their foster parents, relatives, relative caregivers, and siblings. They might also be abused at school. Abuse can continue into adulthood, so having a safe place to go even after 18 can be essential for young adults. Anyone experiencing abuse can call the hotlines mentioned above for guidance and resources. 

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Disparities in the foster care system

Several disparities exist in the foster care system. Many of them have existed for decades and continue to impact families and children in the modern day. Because of these inequalities in the US system, some families and children may be at more of a disadvantage than others. Parents belonging to these disadvantaged groups might also be discriminated against and more likely to have their children removed from their homes. A few disparities to be aware of can include the following. 

Racial disparities 

Racial minorities are more than twice as likely to be placed in the foster care system than white individuals. They also remain in the system for a more extended amount of time

Discrimination 

It may be more difficult for agencies to find families who want to foster and adopt minority children. Racial bias or ableism may be factors contributing to these challenges. Further, due to distrust, families might not turn to the child welfare system for support. When families do not reach out for support, their children might be put into foster care due to the children not having support. Racism and xenophobia can both be factors in causing parents not to want to reach out when they need help. 

A lack of resources 

When families need help raising their children, more advantaged groups may find help faster and at a better quality. Resources might include counseling for substance use disorders, affordable housing, career training, or school accommodations. If parents from disadvantaged groups had more high-quality resources available to them in their communities, they might be able to offer more support to their children. 

Unfair treatment 

There is evidence to suggest that some parents get more leeway than others when their kids are removed from the home.

Why do disparities occur? 

Disparities in foster care can occur for various reasons. However, one of the leading causes is poverty. Children from lower-income households are more likely to be put in the foster care system. As more Black Americans live below the poverty line, Black children disproportionately experience foster care. Parents in poverty are also more prone to substance use and single parenthood, making raising children in a stable, healthy, and safe household more challenging. 

The child may be disadvantaged if parents cannot receive high-quality support, such as child welfare services, job placement, or mental health treatment. Children from families with more opportunities and advantages might be less likely to be placed in foster care because their parents have options. 

In addition, CPS professionals may be biased or discriminatory, which could affect their choices. Court officials might be more lenient on adolescents from certain backgrounds or of specific races but harsh on those from minority groups. Although these disparities may not be reported, many children experience them and carry these experiences into adulthood. 

Structural inequalities exist at many levels of society and affect children and their families. In addition, it can be beneficial to note that not all parents who have lost their children temporarily or permanently wanted it to occur. Some children may go through the foster care system even after their parent has received resources or wants to reunite with them due to laws that might not offer leniency or understanding. 

Foster care and mental health

Since children in the foster care system often experience trauma before and after placement in a new home, they are more prone to developing mental illness. According to experts, 80% of foster care children live with a severe mental illness, considerably higher than the general population. 

Anxiety, depression, and PTSD

Anxiety, depression, and PTSD are common mental health conditions that children in foster care experience. These mental illnesses can develop from abuse, neglect, low self-esteem, or the lack of permanency involved with being in the child welfare system. Often, it is a combination of factors. If a child has experienced trauma and is then placed in an unsafe or abusive foster home, it can worsen their condition.  

Loneliness and attachment 

Youths can experience loneliness and find it difficult to relate to their peers. They may also be untrusting of other people and have challenges with attachment. As they age, many youths turn to substances that harm their physical and mental health. They may have trouble living on their own or finding resources. For this reason, supervised independent living programs, which teach adolescents in the child welfare system how to prepare for independence when they age out, may be valuable. 

Parent mental health outcomes 

Parents of children who are removed from the home can also face mental health challenges because their child is taken. In some cases, a child is removed because their parent has an uncontrollable or untreated mental health condition. For foster kids and their biological parents, receiving quality mental healthcare can be challenging because of disparities in the mental healthcare system. 

If parents had more resources and faced less discrimination, fewer children might end up in the foster care system. It can also be vital to confront racism, discrimination, and harassment within the system. Eliminating these disparities may ensure everyone is treated equally and fairly in the child welfare system. 

Rather than making choices out of bias or fear of differences, professionals can base their decisions on the genuine best interest of the child and their family. In addition, more funding, research, and representation are needed in institutions related to mental healthcare, child welfare services, out-of-home care, supervised independent living programs, and the foster care system. As representation grows, new perspectives can be heard, and changes may be made based on the feedback received. 

Is fostering right for me?

Fostering can be rewarding, but it can also require patience, compassion, and education. Consider learning more about the process before deciding whether it is right for you. You can visit the US government’s child welfare page for further information. 

How to cope with challenges as a prior foster child 

There are a few lifestyle changes you may be able to adopt to improve your mental health as a prior foster child or a parent living with the rehoming of your child, including the following. 

Pick up a hobby 

Hobbies may prevent depression, reduce stress, and improve mood. Try to find one or two activities you enjoy partaking in regularly. If you don’t already have a hobby, try different activities until you find an activity you enjoy. Examples could include painting, reading, writing, playing an instrument, or playing a sport. 

Avoid trauma triggers 

If you know that certain people or situations remind you of traumatic situations, try to avoid them until you can receive support in processing these events. Taking care of your mental health can mean ensuring your safety. If you want to explore your trauma in further detail, consider contacting a trauma-informed therapist for guidance. 

Meditate 

Meditation is a relaxation practice that can bring clarity, improve mood, and reduce stress. To practice meditation, find a quiet place where you feel safe and free from distractions. You can set a timer for whatever length feels right and sit down to begin. One way to practice meditation is by focusing on breathing, redirecting your thoughts, and being kind to yourself. Studies show that even ten minutes daily of meditation can have mental health benefits. 

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It’s okay to not have all the answers

Counseling options 

Many factors can affect your mental health when foster care is involved. Whether coping with your past, trying to make sense of your childhood, or thinking about the future, speaking with a professional could offer support. However, many people face barriers to receiving mental healthcare in a way that fits their circumstances. In these cases, an online therapy platform like BetterHelp might be beneficial. 

Online therapy is a practical treatment approach for teens in the foster care system or adults who have aged out of the foster care system who may be experiencing mental health conditions like depression, substance use disorders, or PTSD. 

Twenty-five controlled trials have demonstrated the effectiveness of internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy (iCBT) in supporting individuals with depressive symptoms. Additionally, participants in an online treatment group for PTSD experienced significant improvements in their symptoms compared to a waiting-list control group.

Although it can be challenging to reach out for support when you’ve experienced trauma with other support workers, many therapists through online platforms are trauma-informed, and you can specify what type of therapist you’re looking for. In addition, you can often change your therapist at any time with a click of a button if you feel they aren’t a proper fit. Finally, online therapy may be more cost-effective than face-to-face options. 

Takeaway

While foster care may help many children escape challenging situations, moving in and out of the foster care system can have detrimental effects on child and adolescent development that persist into adulthood. 

Support is available if you are currently in foster care, have aged out of foster care, or are acting as a caregiver for a foster youth. Consider contacting an online or in-person therapist for further trauma-informed and compassionate guidance and support.

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