Hardship follows children after
Many foster children apparently go on to have
rocky young adulthoods: They're less educated and in much worse
mental health than other adults the same age, and about one-third
live at or below the poverty level — three times the national
average, a study of former foster care children reported Wednesday.
About 800,000 children a year in the USA spend time in foster care.
But few studies have examined their lives beyond the teen years.
It's a disturbing picture, says study leader Peter Pecora of the
Casey Family Programs.
The 479 adults ages 20 to 33 in the study had spent at least a year
in foster homes when they were ages 14 to 18.
Only about 1 out of 5 are mentally healthy and employed. More than
half have at least one mental disorder, including 25% with
post-traumatic stress disorder in the past year. That's more than
six times the post-traumatic stress rate for adults the same age and
even higher than war veterans' levels, Pecora says.
Just 2% have a college degree, compared with 24% for other adults
the same age. And more than 1 out of 5 have been homeless.
Many leave foster care "without any lasting personal connections,
support or life skills," says Casey Family Programs President Ruth
The best-adjusted adults lived with the fewest foster families, had
access to effective mental health treatment and benefited from a
good education and work training, the report says. Much of the
difference between grown-up foster kids and others "could be wiped
out by very doable changes in the foster care system," says study
co-author Ronald Kessler of Harvard Medical School.
Good care for mental disorders is key. But child
welfare workers aren't adequately trained to recognize the problems,
Pecora says. Also, some public agencies aren't up to speed on what
treatments work best, so they're buying ineffective care for kids.
More agencies should sign "performance-based" contracts that pay for
results, he says.
A 7-year-old federal law requires every person leaving foster care
to have a written transition plan so he can "be put on a path to a
living-wage job," Pecora says. But counties and states are enforcing
the law "on a hit-or-miss basis," he says, and the U.S. government
has not monitored enforcement.
The law also allows states to extend foster kids' Medicaid coverage
to age 21 so they can get health and mental health care during the
transition to adulthood. But only nine states are doing this, the
Often, workers in foster care, education, employment and mental
health programs don't talk to one another, leading to kids falling
through the cracks, Pecora says. San Diego and San Antonio have
model programs that get all these professionals working together, he
Investing in the welfare of foster kids can be a hard sell
politically, because there aren't immediate payoffs, Kessler says.
"But there are enormous downstream savings to
society from this 'ounce of prevention,' " Kessler says; many more
kids can become mentally healthy taxpayers rather than welfare
6 April 2005