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How Do We Fix Our Broken Foster Care System?

Understanding Foster & Residential Care

Foster and residential care involve the temporary placement of children in the custody of trained and certified caregivers, when their biological families are unable to provide a safe and nurturing environment. The overarching goal is to ensure the child's well-being, development and eventual reunification with their birth family, whenever possible. In cases where reunification is not feasible, however, foster or residential care might also serve as a bridge toward adoption or other permanent placement options.


Foster and residential care stand as critical pillars in the child welfare system, offering a life-line to vulnerable children whose lives are marked by trauma and adversity. They serve as safe-havens, providing care, support and stability to youngsters who can not remain with their biological families, usually due to severe abuse and/or neglect by a parent or guardian.


When child abuse or neglect is reported to Child Protective Services, a juvenile or family court judge will hear the case and decide if it is in the “best interest” of the child to remove her or him from the biological family. Not all cases of reported child abuse or neglect result in removal from the family, but those that do mean the child will likely end up living with a foster family, in kinship care or a residential care facility.


Foster parents and residential caregivers are the linchpins of the foster care system. Their commitment to providing a nurturing, stable and loving environment can significantly improve a child’s life. Effective foster parents, house parents and other caregivers possess patience, empathy and a willingness to learn and adapt to the unique needs of each child in their care. They love what they do and aspire to make decisions that address the best interests of foster youth.


The mission of foster and residential care goes beyond merely giving these at-risk youth food and shelter; it encompasses physical and psychological safety, emotional healing, educational opportunities, preparation for adulthood and the potential to leave the child welfare system physically and mentally healthier then when they entered it.


These are certainly worthy goals, but are they being met? Not according to these statistics.

How do we improve the placement experiences and adult outcomes of these vulnerable young people? Successful former fosters answer this and other important questions by sharing their personal foster care stories in these enlightening foster care books.

Significant Roles & Responsibilities of Foster & Residential Care & Their Outcomes


  • Safe Haven: Foster and residential care offer an immediate refuge for children facing abuse, neglect or other unsafe circumstances in their family homes. They are tasked with providing a stable and secure environment where children can heal, grow and thrive.

      Instead, more than 25% of former fosters self-report having been abused or neglected while living in foster or

      residential care.

  • Emotional Healing: Most foster youth have experienced trauma, which can manifest in various ways. Foster & residential caregivers are supposed to address these emotional wounds, by providing therapeutic support and nurturing relationships that aid in the healing process.

      Instead, more than 60% of alumni leave foster and residential care with at least one mental health problem

      and over 25% suffer Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the same mental disorder suffered by military combat


  • Educational Opportunities: Foster and residential caregivers are responsible for monitoring and promoting the educational experiences and academic needs of the students in their care, thereby contributing to their cognitive development and future prospects.

      Instead, less than 50% of foster care students graduate high school and less than 5% earn a four-year college


  • Life Skills and Preparation: As foster youth approach adulthood, the system has the duty to equip them with essential life skills, such as financial literacy, vocational training and preparation for independent living, ensuring a smoother transition to adulthood and self-sufficiency.

      Instead, over 50% of male former fosters are arrested and over 20% of all alumni end up in jail or prison by

      their 25th birthday. Indeed, about 20% of America’s prison population is comprised of former fosters.

      There is even a term for it: “The foster care-to-prison pipeline.”

How many more at-risk youngsters must suffer a lesser life for want of a foster care system that truly understands what is in their “best interest” and makes it happen?

We are on a mission to conduct innovative research about how to improve the placement experiences, and adult outcomes of America’s at risk youth and publish our findings.

The Foster Care-Juvenile Delinquency-Criminal Justice Connection

Far too many confused and hopeless foster youth end up following a self-fulfilling prophecy of negativity that leads from foster care to juvenile delinquency and then criminality. They live in the moment, see themselves as worthless and curse the world for being born. That’s a terrible mind-set! But that’s their reality. It’s what they believe and how they feel. And until someone or something alters their self-destructive way of thinking, they are stuck in the foster care-to-prison pipeline.

Factors Contributing to Delinquency & Criminality in Foster Care

  • Instability and Trauma: Foster children often experience instability due to the trauma of being separated from their families and enduring multiple placement and school changes. This instability can lead to emotional and behavioral problems, which, if unaddressed, might manifest as delinquent behaviors or criminal acts.

  • Lack of Support: Children in foster care often lack adequate emotional and psychological support, which can make them vulnerable to peer pressure and other negative influences, increasing the likelihood of engaging in delinquent or criminal activities.

  • Educational Challenges: Multiple placements can disrupt a child's education, leading to academic struggles. Poor academic performance can contribute to feelings of frustration and inadequacy, potentially pushing young people toward delinquency or crime as a coping mechanism.

  • Mental Health Issues: Foster children tend to be at high risk of mental health issues due to their past experiences. Untreated mental health issues can contribute to impulsive, delinquent and criminal behaviors.

  • Inadequate Preparation for Adulthood: Aging out of the foster care system without proper life skills and a support network increases the risk of involvement in criminal activities. The lack of guidance and resources makes these young adults susceptible to negative societal influences, resulting in gang involvement, drug abuse/sales, larceny and crimes against people.

Kids Running

Interventions to Address Delinquency & Criminality in Foster Care

  • Therapeutic Support: Foster youth are usually victims of abuse, neglect, violence or other traumatic family problems beyond the understanding of their immature brains, causing them to act-out their mental confusion. Regularly- scheduled sessions with a mental health professional can help foster children cope with their traumatic experiences and develop healthier ways to manage the emotions and behaviors that promote delinquency and criminality.

  • Stable Placements: Instability promotes angst. Minimize placement changes. Once and done should be the goal. Every placement thereafter puts the child more at risk to feel unwanted and insecure. Conversely, a stable placement experience can positively affect a child's emotional well-being and decrease the likelihood of negative thoughts, feelings and behaviors.

  • Education and Skill Development: Knowledge leads to success. Prioritize learning and provide skill development opportunities to ensure that foster children are adequately prepared for the responsibilities of adulthood. Make every effort to keep them involved in school; preferably, the same school throughout placement. Guide and support them to succeed academically and socially, as well as ensure they are prepared for independent living.

  • Mentorship and Positive Role Models: Foster youth tend to come from broken families and lack worthy mentors and positive role models at a critical time in their emotional and moral development. Connecting them with positive mentors and role models can help counterbalance harmful life events and other negative influences and provide them the adult guidance and support they need and want.

  • Community Engagement: Many foster kids feel separate from society. They see themselves as outsiders and shun group events that offer positive outlets for their energy and creativity. Engaging them in community activities and programs shows they are valued community members, while involving them with positive mentors and role-models.

  • Family Reunification Support: No matter how horrible their home life may have been, most foster children miss their family. The trauma that accompanies being suddenly removed from the only life they’ve known gives rise to anger, rebellion and other negative thoughts and behaviors. When safe and possible, efforts should be directed towards family reunification with the necessary support services to monitor and correct the issues that led to the initial placement.

The William Gladden Foundation
Changing Behavior Through Understanding

The Foster Care & Mental Health

While the primary objective of foster care is to ensure the well-being of these young people, it is essential to recognize the profound impact the experience of foster care can have on their mental health. The journey through foster care can bring about a range of emotional and psychological problems, and it is crucial to address these challenges, if we are to improve the overall mental health and resilience of foster children. Indeed, repairing their mental health is the most important remediation the foster care system can provide to reclaim troubled foster youth and prepare them to succeed as independent adults.

Challenges to Mental Health in Foster Care

  • Trauma and Loss: Many children entering foster care have experienced trauma, abuse, neglect or the loss of their biological family. These life events can lead to complex emotional responses that adversely affect their mental health.

  • Instability and Transitions: Frequent placement changes and uncertainty about their future can create a sense of instability for foster children. Unpredictability can contribute to feelings of anxiety, insecurity and a lack of trust in relationships.

  • Attachment Issues: Due to their history of disrupted family relationships, foster children often struggle with forming secure attachments with their caregivers. These attachment difficulties can affect their ability to build healthy relationships and regulate their emotions.

  • Identity and Belonging: Foster children often grapple with questions about their identity, roots and sense of belonging. These existential concerns can lead to feelings of isolation and negatively affect their self-esteem.

  • Educational Disruptions: Multiple placements and school changes disrupt the educational continuity of foster children. Poor educational experiences and outcomes can contribute to low self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy and frustration.

Strategies to Support Mental Health in Foster Care

  • Trauma-Informed Care: Foster care systems should be equipped with trauma-informed approaches that recognize the impact of trauma on a child's behavior and mental health. Routine therapy and counseling sessions that address trauma promote emotional healing.

  • Therapeutic Interventions: Access to therapeutic interventions, such as play therapy and art therapy, can provide children with tools to express their feelings and anxieties and develop healthy coping mechanisms.

  • Supportive Caregivers: Foster parents and caregivers are the adults directly responsible for providing emotional support to troubled foster youth. Training them to understand and support the unique needs of foster children, and to build healthy attachments with them, are essential to understanding their roles in the psychological development of the young people they are helping to raise.

  • Stability and Consistency: Minimizing placement and school changes and maintaining stable relationships can create a much-needed sense of security for foster children, helping to reduce anxiety, stress and rebellion.

  • Education Advocacy: Advocating for the educational needs of foster children, ensuring consistent schooling and providing academic support can promote a sense of achievement and competence. Graduating high school is a huge boost to self-esteem and greatly increases the odds of successfully transitioning to life on their own.

  • Peer Support and Social Activities: Providing opportunities for foster children to interact with other foster children to share their experiences can create a supportive community and reduce feelings of isolation.

The foster care system is our nation’s promise of a better life for at-risk youths who, often suddenly and without explanation, have been taken from the family home and placed in the care of strangers. It’s like a nine-year-old girl dreaming about playing with her puppy in the yard and waking up tending goats in Ethiopia. The shock to an immature brain is traumatizing. Where am I? What’s happening to me? Where is my mommy? Endless questions without answers. Couple that trauma with the family dysfunctions that preceded removal from all things familiar and you’ve created the recipe for manifesting emotional and behavioral problems. Mental health issues left unresolved can follow foster youth throughout their lives. Chronic mental health issues limit their life-long potential and, instead, promote homelessness, unemployment, substance abuse and crime. What a terrible waste of human potential!

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