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The Impact Foster Care has on Mental Health

Foster care is a temporary living arrangement for children and young people who cannot live with their birth families.

While foster care can provide a safe and stable environment for children, it can also have a huge impact on their mental health.

I sat down with Anna (real name censored for privacy) to chat about her experience in the foster care system. Anna described it as ‘no joy ride, that’s for sure!’ and detailed the impact that ‘12 years of foster care’ has had on her mental health.

With so many people living in foster care across the UK, it is vital that we understand the impact that the care system can have on young people.

This can help us to support those we love that have gone through the system, and for some, help you to understand how to support your own foster children.

One of the most significant effects of foster care on young people's mental health is the disruption of their sense of stability and security.

Many children and young people who enter foster care are leaving traumatic situations, ranging from parental death, to severely violent homes including abuse and sexual trauma.

This, understandably, can lead foster children to develop complex mental health conditions such as PTSD, C-PTSD, depression, and anxiety. The sudden removal from their home and family can exacerbate these symptoms, causing emotional distress and a sense of loss.

It may be difficult to understand how this is the case, given that the child or young person has been removed from the dangerous environment.

However, many find that the upheaval from their old life, coupled with the familiarity of their previous environment, can actually provoke the onset of these symptoms as they struggle to adapt and settle.

The National Institute for Healthcare Excellence (NICE) found that ‘45% of children and young people who were looked after in England had emotional and mental health problems, compared to a rate of 10% among 5 to 15-year-old children in the general population.’

Many looked-after children do not have the privilege to call one place home. Between 2021-2022, the Guardian reported that 10% of these children were moved over three times. That’s an average of once every four months with 31% moving twice or more.

This can have a massive effect on their sense of self, with children potentially moving hours away each time, having to adapt to new schools, and new living environments.

Imagine how different it would be for a young person living in Whitehaven, for example, to be moved from their home to Manchester, then London, then Cardiff, all in the space of a year.

Children with complex backgrounds may also have to change names and identities with each move, further detaching themselves with their sense of identity, and removing any sense of belonging they may have built throughout the foster care process.

Further damage can be done to children in foster care by foster-carers themselves. With the process to becoming a foster parent being so minimal, many children may find themselves placed with carers that are unable to provide the care and support they need.

Instead they are put in homes that are unsuitable, or with carers that are not interested in building a stable, long-term relationship with their looked-after child.

This can lead to feelings of isolation, and convince many looked-after children that their carers are only interested in money, or do not truly care for them.

Anna said: ‘Instead of throwing a rope down to help me up, [they] either dismiss it or take so long to help, so long that I usually just end up having to help myself.’

The lack of continuity in care can also affect the mental health of young people in foster care. CommunityCare reports that ‘between 2016-18, more than half of children saw their social worker change twice or more, while for 32% it was three or more times’.

The frequent turnover of social workers and other professionals can make it challenging for young people to build trust and develop meaningful relationships.

With social workers being the key point of contact for most looked after children, the inability to build trust and communicate effectively with their social worker may make them feel as if they are unable to speak out about issues they may be facing during their placement.

This includes problems or abuse within the home, mental health concerns, or general feelings of stress and anxiety throughout the process. Without someone to talk to, these feelings can fester, and develop into greater issues for looked-after children down the line.

Anna said: ‘I’ve had roughly 14 social workers since being in care, which can really mess a child up, even though I’ve stayed in the same foster home from the start, you still feel like you have no stability, no one to trust.

A social worker is meant to be there to support and guide you, but how is a child meant to feel supported and able to trust someone when they will only stick around for a couple of months?’

However, it is important to note that not all young people in foster care experience negative outcomes.

Some young people may benefit from the stability and support provided by their foster families, being welcomed into new homes and enabled to heal from their past traumas, and potentially being adopted into their foster homes.

Foster care can provide an opportunity for young people to thrive, enabling them to access education, healthcare, and other services that may have been previously unavailable to them.

This is often the case for asylum seekers or looked-after children coming from overseas. Dritan Kastrati is an Albanian actor who told his story of the care system in his iconic play: ‘How Not to Drown’.

Anna adds: ‘I’m grateful for being in a foster home with the family I've been with since I was 7. Some people may have different experiences to me. Everyone will, but this is what my experience was like.’

So what can be done to support young people in foster care and promote their mental health? First and foremost, it is essential to ensure that young people in care receive high-quality care from trained and supportive foster carers.

Foster carers should receive regular training and support to enable them to meet the complex needs of children and young people in their care.

If you’re exploring foster care, or are new to the industry, content creator Laura Foster Parent Partner produces content designed to help foster parents provide the best possible care for their child.

Laura covers issues from supervised visits with birth parents, food insecurity, and parentification among sibling pairs, and care needs/differences between teen and child fosters.

Furthermore, continuity in care should be prioritised, with efforts made to minimise the number of placements and ensure that young people have access to consistent and supportive professionals.

The involvement of young people in decision-making processes that affect their lives should also be promoted, enabling them to have a say in their care and develop a sense of agency and autonomy.

Finally, it is crucial to provide young people in foster care with access to mental health services that meet their specific needs.

Children and young people who have experienced trauma may require specialised support, such as trauma-focused cognitive behavioural therapy (TF-CBT), to help them manage their emotions and develop coping strategies.

If you are a foster parent wondering why your foster child behaves in a certain way, imagine how confused and upset they must be themselves.

Foster care is a complex system that most of us are lucky enough to never have to navigate. However, tens of thousands of children across the UK do not have this privilege.

These children could be your friends. You may even be interested in becoming part of this system yourself, either as a foster parent, or a social worker.

It is vital that we keep listening to looked-after children, looking for and eliminating these invisible signs of struggle, and considering how best to support them throughout this process.

Anna said: ‘These are the children who need a voice. I’m grateful to be able to share my story, and educate people on foster care, but there are still children out there who need help. All we want is to be listened to, and understood.’

If you, or someone you know is, or may become a looked-after child, please remember that there is support available.

Your social worker is there for you to contact about any issues you may be experiencing, and if you feel like this is not the best, or most comfortable option for you, you are not alone.

Speak to a trusted teacher or friend. You can also reach Childline at 0800 1111, or chat to them online via their website.

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