When a child does not receive the care that he or she needs, whether due to maltreatment or other causes, they often wind up in the foster system. Without foster care, hundreds of thousands of youths might currently live on the streets—assuming they lived at all. But while foster care may exist for noble reasons, it receives numerous criticisms on a regular basis. Some criticize the government, which cannot always keep up with each child regularly. Others criticize the foster parents and centers, who sometimes seek financial incentive with little regard to the child’s best interests. Whether or not you agree with these criticisms, the foster system does seem rife with issues. And according to recent studies, high rates of addiction may be counted among them.
Although addiction in the foster system would strike most people as tragic, it shouldn’t necessarily surprise anyone. Before entering the system, many foster children suffer from a variety of mental and emotional disorders. Many of them also suffer from abuse and neglect before entering foster care—and even sometimes afterward. This type of trauma often lends itself to alcoholism and addiction, and the same remains true in the case of foster children. The primary difference is that, in these cases, the disease strikes at an unfortunately young age.
Below, we’ll discuss the rates of addiction in the foster care system, as well as the possible causes and solutions. It may be tragic to watch children suffer from such a crippling disease, but we should maintain hope. No one is beyond saving. This problem can be mitigated. First, however, we must endeavor to improve our understanding of the issues at hand.
Rates of Addiction in Foster Care
It is difficult to track down the precise number of substance users in the foster care system; however, a few numbers might help us to form an estimate. For instance, a 2006 study by the National Institute of Mental Health shows that as many as 35% of 17-year-old foster children may struggle with chemical dependence. About 19.2% of all youth living in child welfare conditions meet the same criteria. At this point, it should be mentioned that the study focused on self-reporting. In other words, the researchers could only report on which youth were willing to admit that they used illicit substances. This means that the above numbers may actually underestimate the scope of the problem.
By contrast, only 20.8 million people aged 12 or older—roughly 7.8% of the population in this age range—suffered from substance use disorders in 2015, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. This means that addiction in the foster care system runs twice as rampant as in the nation as a whole. And among 17-year-olds, addiction rates more than quadruple those of the national estimate. This indicates a massive problem with drug and alcohol abuse in our child welfare system.
New York-based writer, Lisa Marie Basile, lived in foster care between the ages of 14 and 19. Speaking to The Fix, she discussed the possible causes of these high addiction rates.
“I know the immense burden of loss and personal erasure that could lead to [criminal] behaviors. I was one of the luckier ones. That particular vice [drug addiction] skipped me. But that was sheer luck, personal genetics. If I were a betting person, I would have bet my younger self would have been abusing drugs. I had all the reason to.”
And when she says that she can see “all the reason” for a foster child to engage in substance abuse, she isn’t alone. In fact, professionals on the subject name a few major reasons for this problem.
Possible Causes: Neglect and Abuse
Jeff Weiman works as the director for the San Diego Angels Foster Family Network. Given the large population of foster youths in California, he knows their struggles as well as anyone else. As such, we should put stock in what he wrote for The San Diego Union-Tribune in May of 2016:
“Let’s be clear, the actions of the parents are the sole reason a child is placed in foster care. Second, some foster children have challenging behaviors as all have been traumatized. You would be too if by the age of six weeks you had figured out that none of your basic needs would be met no matter what you did.”
Weiman’s example of six-week neglect may sound extreme, but it hovers regrettably close to the truth. Children do not generally wind up in foster care without suffering some sort of abuse or neglect. Furthermore, a 2011 study indicated that almost one-third of foster children experience abuse while in their foster home. So when Weiman says that all foster youths suffer trauma, we cannot disregard his words as mere hyperbole.
As for why children would receive inadequate treatment in foster care, the problem stems from the system itself. We see this exemplified in a 1992 grand jury investigation from Santa Clara, California. This investigation found that the Department of Family and Children’s Services received more funding for putting children in foster care—even if a problem could potentially be solved without removing the child from their home. These findings raised questions about the DFCS’s intentions, not to mention how closely they vetted foster homes before placing children. And when the foster homes also receive financial incentives for taking in children, one cannot always trust their motives. Many turn out to be neglectful, if not outright abusive.
How does this relate to substance abuse? As noted by Dr. David Sack:
“The Adverse Childhood Experiences study, which is based on data from over 17,000 Kaiser Permanente patients, found correlations between severe childhood stress (e.g., abuse, neglect, loss of a parent, domestic violence, or having an addicted or mentally ill parent) and various types of addictions.”
This includes not only substance use disorder but also behavioral addictions, such as eating disorders or hypersexual disorder. Children cannot generally process traumatic experiences without support from family. When family causes said trauma, children must seek unhealthy ways of seeking the support they need. Lacking a proper support network leads them to simply avoid their problems through self-medication. When viewed in this light, it’s almost surprising that addiction rates in the foster system aren’t even higher.
Possible Causes: Parental Addiction
Parental substance abuse often forms the basis of the neglect and abuse suffered by foster children. In fact, some state statutes in the US actually consider parental drug use a form of child abuse. Due to prenatal drug exposure, some children suffer from addiction before even exiting the womb. Such children experience withdrawal at birth, and often suffer numerous co-occurring disorders as they grow older.
Even when prenatal exposure plays no role, parental drug use causes massive childhood stress. Children of addicts and alcoholics often find themselves embarking on a similar path. This domino effect leads to problems affecting teen pregnancy rates, juvenile court records and, our focus, the foster care system. When parents abuse drugs in front of their children, they create a problem that the rest of the country must scramble to clean up. Fortunately, we may identify at least a few ways to help mitigate the problem.
Seeking Possible Solutions
In her discussion with The Fix, Basile noted one way in which we might help foster children—by simply caring.
“The narrative of the foster youth has been hijacked by this idea that foster youth are just losers. Like it’s inherent, expected. The thing is, something has been done to them. I wish more people understood the loneliness.”
This indicates a strong need for awareness. Activists already fight to end the opioid epidemic. Many also fight to improve conditions for foster youths. But how often do these two groups combine their efforts? Perhaps the center of that particular Venn diagram could stand to widen just a little.
Of course, this still leaves open the question of which particular type of help youth addicts need. Since we know that many foster youths suffer childhood trauma, the answer may revolve around PTSD treatments. This may involve medication. But one of the other primary treatments for PTSD and other psychological disorders is cognitive behavioral therapy. Addiction treatment centers utilize this same type of therapy. Treatment centers willing to treat underage patients could therefore do a lot of good to the foster care system.
The first step to all of this, however, requires substance users to accept their disorder. In the case of foster kids, they may need help in order to do this. Counselors or CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) volunteers can help. They can reach out to these youths, letting them know that they can find a better way to live. Once young addicts and alcoholics in the foster care system submit to counseling or treatment, they will find the support system they need. The guidance and adult care that they lacked in early adolescence will become theirs, playing a role in their recovery. In this way, they may discover something that eludes far too many children in the foster care system—true compassion.