How Foster Care Support Can Boost Mental Health When Life-Skills Classes Are Not Enough

By Darian Woods

New research suggests that supporting foster youths’ transition to adulthood is important to protect against mental illness. Help navigating the administration of life, such as how to buy health insurance, balance a checkbook or prepare for a job interview may be associated with stronger mental health decades later.

Even better, these lessons can help steer youth toward a more successful life course if they are complemented with a trusted adult.

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Washington surveyed 805 adults who were once foster youth under care by Seattle-based charitable foundation, Casey Family Programs. The research, published in January, shows more psychiatric illnesses such as depression, separation anxiety and alcoholism among black and white foster youth who came from a home that failed to prepare them for life on their own. The good news is that this suggests small changes for foster youth at the critical ages of 17 and 18 could bring benefits that last well into adulthood.

“We need to think broader about how we actually promote agency helpfulness and how we promote mental health,” said Antonio Garcia, co-author of the research and an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “Getting a job is helpful, but often they don’t have that one adult in their life that they can trust.”

The paper’s conclusions are tempered by the nature of the survey­­—they ask alumni to recall foster care from, on average, a decade prior. If, for example, alumni with depression recall similar experiences less favorably, this biases the findings to misleadingly show a stronger effect.

“You get moved by virtue of the ups and downs of your illness,” said Steven P. Segal, a professor in mental health and social conflict at the University of California, Berkeley. Segal was a foster child in the 1950s. His personal experience corresponds with his view that a trusted adult is important for transitioning foster youth.

Segal left the foster care system at 17 and said that he did have a trusted adult he could talk to following the transition. On this man’s advice, Segal moved to Manhattan and started taking night classes. “He told me to get out of Brooklyn,” Segal said.

Segal commented on the paper, cautioning that the findings do not mean that we can conclude that unhelpful care causes mental illness. In many cases the mental illness causes the unhelpful care. A further cause for caution is that the respondents with poorer mental health may have remembered this time more negatively. The paper also warns about these issues.

Although a trusted adult and stable placement was useful to Segal, he remains skeptical of the method of trying to predict mental health, especially when the foster care alumni are trying to recall from so long ago. To support this paper, he said, further studies should interview youth at the time of foster care graduation and follow the same individuals’ progress over time.

What do these findings mean for foster care policy?

Current federal policy in this area under the Foster Care Independence Act of 1999 attempts to assist youth transitioning out of foster care by providing training for independent living skills. At age 18, youth are legally considered self-sufficient. Yet skills-based training may not be enough.

While it is hard to conclusively say that the foster alumni’s mental health problems would have been reduced or eliminated but for better assistance with adult life, the research shows a strong association that demands close attention from policymakers, researchers and those involved in the foster care system.

“All people go through challenging times but not all people have someone they trust,” Garcia said.

Darian Woods is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy at University of California, Berkeley. He is an editor at the School’s PolicyMatters Journal. This piece was written as part of the graduate course, Journalism for Social Change.

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