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

Updated January 11, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Growing from a child to an adolescent and then an adult can come with a host of good and bad experiences. A child’s life can be stressful, fun, exciting, and scary, depending on a lot of different factors. For children who grow up in the foster care system, their childhood may carry more painful or difficult times than others. 

While every foster care child will have a different experience, for many, it’s not uncommon to go through one trauma after another. While seen as a temporary arrangement for those awaiting adoption, many children in foster care end up spending half their childhood and even adolescent lives in group homes. Children in foster care are at increased risk for child abuse and other forms of trauma. As a result, their mental health can be greatly impacted for years to come. 

We’ll be exploring how children growing up in the foster care system may be affected and what they can do to overcome the hardships they may have experienced. Connecting with an online therapist can be effective if you have been impacted by the foster care system.

It’s Okay To Not Have All The Answers

What Is Foster Home Care?

There are many terms that fall under the foster care umbrella. Foster care entails a situation in which a child is adopted and cared for by someone who is not their biological parent. This could be a single individual, a married couple, or a family with other children. It could include relatives or a stranger. The foster care definition can vary widely because every situation will look different. 

Though foster care is the temporary placement of a child with a different person or family, sometimes that placement becomes permanent. This happens when a family or individual decides to adopt the child, provided they can’t or don’t go back to their original caregiver. This is when foster families become permanent families. When a child isn’t adopted and reaches the age of 18, it’s referred to as “aging out” of the child welfare system. 

What Is A Foster Care Parent Called? 

Foster carers are the people who offer their home, resources, and support to a child in need. They are also known as foster parents, or, foster families. Not only do they need to provide basic needs for the child, but they should also extend safety, belonging, and love as well. Children in foster care may have experienced trauma, even at a young age, and foster carers need to be prepared to effectively help them.

In many states, someone interested in being a foster parent needs to 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, such as a social services worker. This person may visit the home of the potential foster parent and interview them to see if they are suitable for the job.

Foster Care Facts: 

Neglect is the number one reason a youth is placed in foster care. However, children can also enter the system for a variety of other reasons. These could include abuse, a family crisis, illness, incarceration, death, or substance use. 

In rare cases, a family may voluntarily give their child up for adoption for a time, perhaps to get back on their feet. In addition, a child can choose to be placed in the foster care system if certain conditions are met. 

Below are some 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.

  • 8: The average age a child enters the foster care system.

  • 20,000: The number of young people who age out of the foster care system without families every year.

  • One-third of kids who enter the foster care system are people of color. 


While foster care may be the right choice for a child in a given situation, it doesn’t make it an easy one. Even when a child transitions to a home that’s a better environment for their well-being and health, they can still face other challenges within the foster care system. 

Challenges Faced By Kids In Foster Care

A child may not understand what’s happening when they end up in foster care, resulting in a potentially traumatic experience. Some common challenges that kids in the foster care system 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 difficult to cope with, especially as they grieve their previous life. Even when a child is removed from an abusive or neglectful situation, that doesn’t mean they won’t feel a sense of loss and grief.

  • Mental illness: Kids 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 disorders.

  • Academic issues: Those in the foster care system tend to struggle more in school than their peers do. They might have lower grades, fewer academic goals, and often don’t graduate at as high of a rate as their peers. In many cases, they don’t have the support other students do to be able to succeed.

  • Trouble with the legal system: It’s known as the foster care-to-prison pipeline and affects children all over the country. Going through the system makes it more likely a child will get in trouble with the law or even end up in jail.

  • Physical health issues: About 50% of kids in foster care have some sort of physical health problem. Examples include asthma, hearing loss, visual issues, and more. 

  • Lack of resources: Foster kids often don’t have the same resources that their more advanced peers do. 

  • Homelessness: Once a child ages out of the system, they have a 1 in 4 chance of becoming homeless within four years. Homelessness is correlated with a host of negative outcomes such as substance use disorders, mental health conditions, loss of self-esteem, violence, and a greater likelihood of ending up in the criminal justice system.

  • Unemployment: Former foster youth are more likely to be unemployed than other populations. About 47-69% of those who went through the foster care system are unemployed. Unemployment can cause depression and keep someone from moving forward into a better life. 

  • 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. 


If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse in any form, reach out right away to the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1.800.799.SAFE (7233) for immediate support, advice, and assistance. 

Disparities In The Foster Care System

Several disparities exist in the foster care system. Most of them have existed for decades and continue to impact families and children to this day. Because of these inequalities in the system, some people are at more of a disadvantage than others. Parents belonging to these disadvantaged groups are more likely to have their kids removed from their households. Some of the disparities to be aware of include:

  • Racial disparity: Minorities are more than twice as likely to be placed in the foster care system than their white peers. They also remain in the system for a longer amount of time (around nine months more).

  • Discrimination: It’s more difficult to find families willing to foster and adopt minority children. Racial bias can be the contributing factor to this. Further, families often don’t turn to the child welfare system for help because they don’t trust it. The racism and discrimination that often exists in these agencies turn families away from them even when they really need support. As a result, their kids are more likely to end up in foster care because they can’t get the help they need.

  • Lack of resources: When families need help raising their children, more advantaged groups are usually able to find help faster. The support they receive is also often of better quality. Resources could include counseling for substance use disorders, affordable housing, career training, and more. If parents belonging to disadvantaged groups had more resources available to them, they could possibly be able to keep their children at a higher rate.

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

The reasons for these disparities vary. One of the most significant, however, is poverty. Children from lower-income households are more likely to end up in the foster care system. Since more Black Americans live below the poverty line, Black children disproportionately end up being fostered. Parents in poverty are more prone to substance use and are often single parents, which can make it more challenging to raise their kids in a stable, healthy, and safe household. 

If their parents cannot get the help they need, such as child welfare services, a job placement, or mental health treatment, the child may be at a further disadvantage. Children who come from families with more opportunities and advantages are less likely to be placed in foster care because their parents can get support when they need it.

For example, CPS professionals may be biased or even discriminatory, which affects the choices they make. Court officials might be more lenient on adolescents from certain backgrounds or of specific races, but harsh on those from minority groups. 

Structural inequalities exist at every level of society and affect both children and their families in negative ways. While the removal of a child can be in their best interest, there are no doubt times when bias or discrimination are more responsible for a child’s removal than their well-being. When parents cannot trust that professionals are on their side and want to see families reunited, they cannot lean on them when they need help. 

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 health disorders. In fact, up to 80% of foster care kids have severe mental health conditions, a number considerably higher than the general population. 

Anxiety, depression, and PTSD are common mental health conditions that children in foster care experience. These disorders can develop from abuse, neglect, low self-esteem, or simply 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 exacerbate their mental health. 

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

Foster care has been associated with many negative outcomes, but every child’s situation will vary. Parents of children who are removed from the home can also face mental health challenges as a result of their child being taken. And, 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, getting help for their mental health is often more difficult because of disparities in the mental health care system. These disparities include lack of representation, limited resources, care that isn’t affordable, discrimination, stigma, and more. 

If parents were able to get the help they need when they needed it, fewer children might end up in the foster care system. It’s also vital to confront racism, discrimination, and harassment within the system. Eliminating each of these systems can help ensure that 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 what is genuinely best for the child. Finally, more funding, research, and representation is needed in institutions related to mental health care, 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 can be made based on the feedback received. 

Is Fostering Right For Me?

Fostering can be incredibly rewarding, but it also requires patience, compassion, and education. It’s not something to take lightly; rather, you should learn more about the process before deciding it’s right for you.

Are you interested more information about fostering? You can visit this link to gather more information: https://www.childwelfare.gov/topics/outofhome/resources-foster-families/how-to/.

Coping With Life’s Challenges

Sometimes, it is helpful to see a therapist to address concerns and problems you’re facing in your life. However, this isn’t always an option for everyone. It might not be the best choice for your needs, or it may just not be the right time. Still, it’s important to take steps to benefit your mental health here and now. 

Some things you can try are:

  • Picking up a hobby: Hobbies can help prevent depression, reduce stress, and improve mood. It is beneficial for everyone to have one or two things they enjoy doing regularly. If you don’t already have a hobby, try different activities until you find something that’s equal parts fun and relaxing. Examples could include painting, reading, writing, playing an instrument, or playing a team/individual sport.

  • Avoiding triggers: If you know that certain people or situations will cause you to develop anxiety or have a panic attack, it’s best to avoid those things. Taking care of your mental health means doing what’s best for you. It isn’t selfish; rather, it is logical and necessary for you to be your best self.

  • Meditating: Meditation is a type of relaxation practice that can bring clarity, improve mood, and reduce stress. Overall, it can be incredibly calming. To practice meditation, you’ll require a quiet, personal place. You can set a timer for whatever length feels right and then sit down to begin. You’ll practice meditation by focusing on your breathing, redirecting your thoughts, and being kind to yourself. You can do it as little or as often as you’d like. 


Self-care is a good habit to prioritize in your life. Not only can it help you manage obstacles as they arise, but it can also improve your mental health on a daily basis. Sometimes you’ll need the help of a professional, but never underestimate the power of taking care of yourself at every opportunity.

It’s Okay To Not Have All The Answers

How BetterHelp Can Assist You

There are many factors that can affect your mental health. Whether you’re coping with your past, trying to make sense of your childhood, or thinking about the future, speaking with a professional could help you get answers sooner. Sometimes there are barriers to receiving mental health care that are difficult to overcome. 

BetterHelp attempts to remove these obstacles for you so that receiving care is more convenient, easier, and more affordable. Operating as an online therapy platform, BetterHelp works by connecting you with a qualified therapist with the click of a button. You’ll need an internet connection as well as a device like a smartphone. Once you’re matched, you’ll be able to talk with your therapist through a messaging feature, phone call, or video chat. 

Reaching out for mental health support can be hard to do, but it’s something many people wish they had done sooner. BetterHelp has assisted millions of people and could do the same for you. Whether you turn to online therapy or some other option, getting help is what matters most. Reach out today if you’re ready to get started with BetterHelp.

Online therapy is an effective treatment approach for teens currently in the foster care system or adults who have aged out of the foster care system and who may be experiencing mental health conditions like depression, substance use disorders, or PTSD. At least 25 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.

Takeaway

While there are many benefits inherent to foster care, moving in and out of the foster care system can have detrimental effects on child and adolescent development that persist into adulthood. Whether you are currently in foster care, have aged out of foster care, or are acting as a caregiver for a foster youth, support is available via the online BetterHelp platform and its sister site for teenagers ages 13 tp 19 – TeenCounseling.

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