For the first time, researchers are beginning to understand the
pivotal mechanisms that help children in foster care thrive after
they've undergone the double trauma of being abused by a loved
parent and then forcibly removed from home.
The key has turned out to be "foster care alumni" - the adults
who as children survived a system that is often overwhelmed,
underfunded, and lacking enough caring homes to take in an estimated
800,000 US children each year.
A look at the lives and early experiences of these alumni
provides a view that is at once stunning and disturbing, but
ultimately hopeful because their stories provide the tools needed to
ensure that more foster children flourish as adults.
While about 20 percent of foster care alumni are doing well,
graduating from school and succeeding in their professional lives,
more than half, 54 percent, have what doctors diagnose as mental
health problems, from depression to anxiety. Indeed, research has
found that more than 25 percent of foster-care alums experience post-
traumatic stress disorder. That's twice as high as the percentage of
veterans who faced combat.
"This is a wake-up call: The foster care, mental health, and
educational systems are not building strong enough bridges to the
future," says Peter Pecora, senior director of research services
with the Casey Family Programs, a leading foster-care foundations.
"These systems have to work differently. We have to spend the funds
we have available to us in more targeted ways."
The Casey Family Programs worked in conjunction with Harvard
Medical School to identify factors that helped determine whether a
child who enters the system at, say, age 5, as Adam Cornell did,
will end up in trouble, possibly homeless or in jail, or as a
successful prosecutor, as Mr. Cornell did. The factors turned out to
be fairly simple, seemingly common-sense remedies, such as reducing
the number of foster homes that kids cycle in and out of.
The average foster child changes homes almost every year. Cornell
had more than half a dozen placements - more if you include the
three times he was returned to his mother before being removed
permanently and adopted at age 14. He calls it being "bounced
around," an experience that did not add to his success. But he did
have something else that researchers have found is vital if foster
kids are to succeed: meaningful relationships with caring adults.
"At every crossroads in my life, there was somebody - a foster
parent, a teacher, or a friend - who believed I could thrive and
helped me do that," says Cornell, now a prosecutor in Snohomish
County in Washington State. "A kid needs somebody who can dream for
them when they can't dream for themselves."
Schooling is another challenge for foster kids. While the Casey
study found that foster-care alums have high school graduation rates
that are slightly higher than the general population, the majority
of them earned graduate equivalency diplomas (GEDs). That's in part
because they get bumped from school to school so often. Sixty-five
percent had eight or more school changes during their time in foster
care; 30 percent had 10 or more school changes. …