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Prioritizing Mental Health in Foster Care Systems: An Ethical Necessity

While kids in foster care navigate the complexities of growing up, they are also faced with a unique set of challenges at home that sets them apart from their peers. Of the nearly 400,000 kids in foster care across the United States, roughly 80% of them experience mental health concerns.

As a society, we pride ourselves on caring for and protecting our most vulnerable populations, especially children. Ensuring adequate mental health supports is essential for the well-being and future success of the children navigating the complex, and sometimes uncertain, foster care system. Introducing more widely funded and accessible resources will contribute greatly to the children’s growth, development, and successes, and will help support foster parents as they provide a loving environment for the kids in their care.

Children in foster care who do not receive the mental health services they need often become caught in a vicious cycle. If they don’t receive the right resources and support, they are more likely to be shuffled from family to family which adds to their trauma experience. Kids are sometimes not able to process their experiences or express their feelings verbally. Because of this, their behaviors, which are a result of their traumatic experiences, can be perceived as a problem, thus causing a continuation of negative and damaging events.

Moreover, when a child is in a continuous pattern of being shuffled from home to home, the effect on their mental health can be detrimental and undesirable consequences can result. The kids often become emotionally cautious and keep people at arms-length in order to protect themselves and prevent feelings of rejection which can have a devastating impact.

As children become young adults and start to transition out of the foster care system, there are a few resources available. Assistance in learning independent living skills, navigating higher education, and housing are just a few examples of resources for these young adults, like those offered by Centerstone, and some are available up to age 24. However, a great concern is that a large part of kids who are eligible to receive these resources do not. A report on state and national foster care data by The Annie E. Casey Foundation found that in 2021, an estimated 77% of eligible youth in foster care, from ages 14 to 21, left care without receiving the federally funded services that are necessary to prepare them for independent living and adulthood. The issue we see time and time again is that while these resources are available to some, they are not available to all. Over the past few years, there has been an increase in state and federal funding as well as an awareness for resources like these to help set kids up for success. However, there continues to be confusion as to who can use the services and how they can access them. We need to ensure that effective resources and the education about these resources continue to be allocated for foster kids and we need to make sure that foster parents are aware of what is available to them and the children in their care.

The foster system and the kids within the system need a wider selection of supports – from foster parents, to case managers, to mental health providers, to quality assessment beds at facilities, to housing for those aging out of care. We also need a greater awareness that there are no bad kids. These kids are doing their best to navigate trauma and other tough experiences. It is incumbent on us, the adults in their lives, to understand this and do what we can to support them. I understand that a piece about foster care is likely to garner sympathy from readers. However, what foster kids and the foster system truly need is action. As much as unending financial support would solve many issues, there are things you can do now. Consider a career in human services that will help with advocacy and support for kids in the system. Vote for elected officials who will make foster kids a priority and be a voice for them and their families. Consider opening your home up to a child in foster care, or volunteering for organizations that serve them.

Roddy Fernandez is a Program Manager in Therapeutic Foster Care at Centerstone, a nonprofit health system specializing in mental health and substance use disorder services. Learn more at Centerstone.org.

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