May is National Foster Care Month, a month dedicated to recognizing the time and commitment from foster parents, family members, volunteers, mentors, policymakers, child welfare professionals, child mental health professionals and family therapist who help children in foster care find permanent homes and connections. According to statistics there are more than 400,00 children in foster care.

What is foster care?

Foster care is a transition period (short term or long term) where a minor is placed in a group home or a private home under the care of the state after being separated from their biological family. The majority of children in the foster care system live in a private family setting whereas approximately 15 percent of children live in group homes or institutions. The goal of foster care is to provide a safe temporary setting until the child is adopted out into a permanent family. The average time a child spends in state foster care is two years and the average age of children in this care is 9 years of age.

 Foster care and mental health disorders in children and adolescents

The majority of children in the foster care system come from broken homes in which their biological parents showed signs of domestic violence, neglect, drug abuse or illegal activity resulting in these children being taken away from their biological families and entering into the foster system. Studies have shown that youth in the foster care system often do not receive the help they need are more likely to be unemployed, homeless, imprisoned or diagnosed with a mental health disorder or a substance abuse disorder. According to studies, approximately 60% of adolescents in the foster care system meet diagnostic criteria for at least one psychiatric disorder during their lifetime, including major depression, separation anxiety disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and oppositional defiant disorder.

Broken bonds in the foster care system

Attachment refers to the physical, psychological and even biological bond that occurs between a child and their primary caretaker such as the mother and father. For a baby, attachment begins while in utero when nourishment is needed from the mother’s placenta. For the mother, attachment begins immediately after birth. The attachment bond can become stronger throughout infancy and childhood with more physical touch and comfort. Strong emotional and physical attachment to a parent is important for the childhood to develop so they can have secure relationships in adulthood. For many children in the foster care system, their attachment bond is broken, sometimes multiple times, as they are passed around foster care and finally settle into their permanent adoptive family. Broken bonds between biological parents and siblings, a past history of trauma and living in an unstable environment all contribute to the development of mental health disorders in children and adolescents who are in the foster care system.

Preventing mental health disorders in foster care populations

Through competent and empathetic social and psychological support from foster families, social workers, mental health professionals and the education system, foster children can become more aware of the risks they face due to their circumstances. By being made self-aware of their potential at-risk behaviors, this population of children can learn the coping tools and knowledge through therapy and social support groups to prevent the long-term consequences of social, mental, and physical risks they face secondary to being placed in the foster care system. Additionally, eliminating the stigma associated with foster children and mental health disorders can create an easier pathway for this population to seek psychological and emotional support.