Foster youth experience higher than normal rates of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), deficits in executive functioning, anxiety, incarceration, poverty, homelessness, eating disorders, obesity, and suicide.
Many of these youth are influenced by extreme negativity to include emotional neglect, poor nutrition, exposure to violence, and child abuse. These negative influences may have lifelong repercussions and affect their physical, emotional, and cognitive well-being. When children experience trauma as the direct result of an abusive caregiver, the process of developing a secure and healthy attachment is severely disturbed.
Foster youth may arrive at their new foster homes with a myriad of issues to include enuresis, encopresis, injury, past abuse, fear of being alone, fear of strangers, fear of being abducted, parents not loving them, etc It is important to be sensitive to their many fears, as they are very real. It is also important not to insist on them sharing the past with you. While being open to frank conversation is positive, insisting they re-hash their past can be detrimental to their rehabilitation. Leave this to the professionals.
Foster youth may have difficulty transitioning into their new home environment. It is not uncommon for them to experience a six month transitional period. Certain negative behaviors that occur initially generally subside after this transition period. Being aware that certain events may trigger negative emotions within these youth is important. Their birthday, for example, may remind them of other birthdays they have had and of their biological parents. They may become melancholy on or around mothers and fathers day because they are reminded of their biological family. Entering a new school is rough for almost anyone, but especially for these youth, as it is not uncommon for them to experience multiple placements and schools.
They may be removed from everything familiar to them to include their neighborhood, town, county, state, friends, school, family, etc Adjusting to a totally new life is shocking and difficult. Even though these youth are removed from their biological families for good reasons, they still grieve the loss of the familiar, their family, friends, pets, and siblings.
While foster homes are generally superior placements compared to their natural environment, they experience a very real loss. They may experience confusion and anger focused on the reasons why they cant be placed with extended family members.
Sadly, almost half of the foster youth in the United States face homelessness by the age of 18. Many of these youth leave the system without a permanent or stable family environment. They also have higher mortality rates due to substance abuse, accidents, suicide, and various chronic illnesses. The probability of these youth dropping out of school before they graduate is nearly 80 percent. Generally, less than two percent of this population earns a bachelors degree.
It is important that anyone working with this very sensitive population remember they are experiencing significant grief, abandonment, anger, and depression. Being a child is difficult enough when life is considered normal and healthy. These youth have an intensely compounded situation sometimes made worse by multiple placements and/or being placed with foster parents not equipped to deal with these significant issues. These children need to consistently feel the caring presence of their caregiver.
It is important that caregivers validate their feelings and remember that grief is normal. Avoiding criticism, ridicule, and shame is an important part of the healing process. Foster youth will experience healing slowly, as they are ready to delve into recovery. It is equally important to ensure the youth maintain regular visits with a trusted mental health professional.
Foster youth require and deserve an immeasurable amount of support to overcome the obstacles they have endured. There are a myriad of ways to support foster youth. Support may be provided in the form of monetary donations to foster agencies; it may come in the form of volunteering to be a foster parent; it may come in the form of advocating and lobbying for the rights of foster youth; and may come in the form of dedicating your life to working with this delicate and deserving population.
Holly Smith, Ph.D., ABD, has been a credentialed school psychologist for the past 10 years, has experience working as a social worker dealing with families and children, and has taught graduate-level courses in psychology.
Although writing this book, in-part, comes directly from her personal experience during divorce, her vast professional experience lends to the required technical and theoretical expertise. In her former role as a social worker, she was tasked with providing education and training to families during difficult times in their lives. She provided education and support in the areas of coping with crisis situations, making healthy decisions and choices, effectively parenting and co-parenting, overcoming homelessness, and impro