According to a Wikipedia Article, foster care is defined as “a system in which a minor who has been made a ward (of the state) is placed in a private home of a state certfied caregiver referred to as a “foster parent.” In legal terms, a ward is someone placed under the protection of a legal guardian. In come cases, the court may take responsibility for the legal protection of the child or individual, in which case the child is referred to as a “ward of the state.” Although it sometimes does not work out this way, Foster Care is designed to be a short term solution until the child is either:
Reunited with his or her biological parents (when it is determined that it is within the child’s best interest to do so).
Adopted, preferably by a biological family member such as an aunt or a grandparent, or, if neither is willing or able, someone else involved directly in a child’s life such as a teacher or a coach.
A permanent transfer of guardianship can be made
Or, if none of the above options are available, a child may enter what is known as the OPPLA (Other Planned Permanent Living Arrangement) which would mean the child stays in the custody of the state in a foster home, with a relative or a long term care facility.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that as of September 30, 2010, there were 408,425 children living in foster care, with a median age of 9.2. Around half (48&) of these were in non-relative foster family homes, while 26% were living in the homes of relatives. More detailed statistics can be found in the above document.
Possible Negative Effects of Foster Care
While short term foster care can be beneficial to children, especially in cases where biological parents are either unfit, unwilling or unable to care for children, many children experience the detrimental effects of prolonged foster care stay. These include, but are by no means limited to, the following:
Effects on cognitive development. As shown by the statistics reported above, many children enter foster care at ages when the development of both mental and psychological processes are just beginning to develop. Things such as personality traits as well as stress response and cognitive skills are just beginning to form during this period. All of these can be negatively effected by environmental factors such as emotional neglect, poor nutrition, and exposure to violence in the home. Studies have shown that foster children have elevated levels of stress hormones (cortosol) compared with other children who have been raised by their biological parents. These elevated levels can lead to compromised immune systems, among other things.
Post traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Children can develop PTSD by witnessing violence in the home or falling victim to violence and abuse themselves.
Eating Disorders. In comparison to children raised by biological parents, foster children are at an increased risk for a variety of eating disorders, such as obesity, Bulimia Nervosa, and others.
Attachment Disorders. As the direct result of abuse and neglect, children can develop a variety of attachment issues which can lead to depression, anxiety, and behavioral issues.
Poverty and homelessness. According to some, nearly half the foster children in the United States become homeless when they turn 18. This means that some 3 our of every 10 homeless children in th US are former foster children
Positive Outcomes of Foster Care: Avoiding Detrimental Effects of Care
The negative effects of foster care outlined above may seem rather bleak, but not all foster children end up homeless, experiencing PTSD or eating disorders and the like. The outcomes of foster care are greatly dependent on the characteristics of both the children themselves and the services they recieve. According to a 2003 study conducted by Foster Care Alumni Studies entitled Assessing the Effects of Foster Care: Early Results from the Casey National Alumni Study, many characteristics of foster care were strong predictors of later success, such as:
The degree to which foster programs provide life skills preparation and training in independent living (such as cooking job skills, etc.).
The child’s ability t complete a high school diploma or GED before leaving care.
Opportunities to participate in social activities with other children such as sports or other clubs and organizations.
Positive parenting by foster parents
Stability in child care system (ie allowing children to remain in the same foster home for extended periods of time)
Minimizing criminal behavior, as well as minimizing alcohol and drug use.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
Have you or anyone you know been involved with the foster care system, either as a child or as a foster parent?
Do you think that the foster care system (in the United States or elsewhere) is working, or does it need reform? Why or why not?
Can you think of other ways, besides the ones listed above, to ensure that foster children thrive?
If done correctly, foster care can be instrumental in protecting children and youth from maltreatment and helping them to develop successfully. Practitioners, policy makers, foster parents and the like all have a role in improving the lives of children placed in the system through, in large part, implementing some of the above suggestions.