Federal Coordination Needed on Foster Care and Mental Health

by Stephanie Orlando

May is recognized as both National Foster Care Awareness Month and Mental Health Awareness Month. What most people do not realize is the overlap that often occurs with these populations.

In the United States, there are more than 400,000 children and teens in foster care.  Research reveals that children and teens in the foster care system have disproportionately high rates of psychiatric disability.

One study by the National Institute of Mental Health found that nearly half (47.9 percent) of youth in foster care were found to have clinically significant emotional or behavioral problems. Likewise, researchers at the Casey Family Programs estimate that between one-half and three-fourths of children entering foster care exhibit behavioral or social competency problems that warrant mental health services.

Youth who have “aged out” of foster care also show high rates of psychiatric disability.  According to a study by the Casey Family Programs and Harvard Medical School, a high number of former foster children have psychiatric disabilities as adults.  Over half of foster care alumni had mental health diagnoses, compared to 22 percent of the comparison group.

The disproportionate level of mental health diagnoses is perhaps most evident with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Thirty percent of foster alumni are diagnosed with PTSD, which is about twice the rate of U.S. combat veterans.

In 2008, the National Council on Disability (NCD), an independent federal agency that advises the President, Congress and other federal agencies on disability policy, issued a comprehensive report entitled, Youth with Disabilities in the Foster Care System: Barriers to Success and Proposed Policy Solutions.

In that report, NCD found that, “While the federal investment in the multiple systems with which these youth come in contact is significant, the disconnectedness and lack of coordination across programs and agencies call into question the effectiveness of government efforts.”

Five years later, the problems remain. The mental health needs of children and teens in foster care continue to be overlooked and inadequately addressed, often with detrimental consequences.

A significant number of the estimated 20,000 young people who leave foster care each year face inordinately bleak futures.  According to researchers, just over half of these young people – 54 percent – earn a high-school diploma, and a quarter of them become homeless.  On average, youth who age out of the foster care system with psychiatric disabilities fare even worse.

In 2003, researchers at Georgetown University estimated that only 42 percent of students with mental health diagnoses graduate from high school.  As such, foster care youth with psychiatric disabilities find themselves at a double disadvantage.

As we acknowledge both National Foster Care Awareness Month and Mental Health Awareness Month, NCD renews its call to action. We urge legislators, policymakers and service providers to direct significant attention to the needs of children and teens with psychiatric disabilities in the foster care system by following through on these recommendations:

  • Increased flexibility for states and communities so programs and services can be most effectively structured to meet the needs of children and teens with disabilities in foster care;
  • More federal support for research and demonstration projects to identify effective policies and practices that lead to positive outcomes for children and teens with disabilities in foster care;
  • Improvements in the quality, availability and affordability of mental health services and supports;
  • Better training for foster care parents and increased recruitment of individuals willing to foster children and teens with disabilities;
  • Greater access to individualized, comprehensive transition services, including mental health care, for children and teens with disabilities aging out of foster care; and increased collaboration among the education, juvenile justice, child welfare, labor, dependency court, health and mental health systems.

Furthermore, NCD applauds the President’s new budget proposal to fund mental health initiatives. The proposed $205 million to help identify mental health problems, improve access to mental health services and support safer school environments, if adopted, will fill an important void for many children and teens in foster care who have psychiatric disabilities.

The goal for America’s youth to live healthy, happy lives and to become self-sufficient, contributing members of society is achievable, but we should not — and cannot — forget those young people who face significant barriers to reaching these goals.

Our nation must make a strong commitment to support children and teens with psychiatric disabilities throughout their time in foster care and take the steps necessary to ensure that a safe, healthy and positive transition to adulthood is planned for as the end goal.

This can only happen if we include youth with psychiatric disabilities in the planning process and in our communities going forward. The foundation we, as a society, build for children and teens in foster care during their formative years will likely become the basis for the future they create. Let’s build it on solid ground.

Stephanie Orlando, who received mental health and special education services in residential facilities as a youth, is the Director of YOUTH POWER! of Families Together in New York State, a state advocacy network comprised of young people with disabilities with experience in state child-serving systems.

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