Slipping Through the Holes of the Foster System

by Jesse Kapstad

What you can do:

  1. Donate to help children currently in foster care who are moving and settling into new homes
  2. Visit the Raikes Foundation to learn more about factors affecting the foster youth that feed the prison system 
  3. Support breaking the stigma around mental health by increasing awareness

Foster care is a government program that provides minors who have an unstable home life with a temporary place to reside until these problems are resolved. The system acts as a safety net intended to catch children that society has left behind due to issues that range from family instability and poverty to neglect and abuse. Unfortunately, many youths still slip through holes in the net due to lapses in the system. Children in foster care often grow up with trauma and a disjointed family structure. The effects of having a non-supportive childhood―some of the most formative years of one’s life―can have disastrous results. Because of this, over half of all foster care youths have serious run-ins with law enforcement before they turn eighteen, leading to the foster care-to-prison pipeline [1]. The failure of a system designed to help these children stems from the fact that the foster system is only framed as preventative care, when it should also focus on restorative care; thus, it feeds children into a life of crime due to instability and a failure to address their issues. This failure cannot be tolerated and these needs must be taken care of.

The history of the foster care system in the United States begins in 1853 with an idea formulated by Charles Loring Brace. Brace founded the Children’s Aid Society with the goal of helping the many poverty-stricken and unhoused children in New York. His solution included sending these children to the South and West to live with families on farms. Traveling on what became known as “orphan trains,” these children were commonly provided with free homes in exchange for farm labor. Over the course of seventy years, around 200,000 children rode these trains that functioned as an early form of foster care [2], By the 1920s, federal and state governments began developing professional services to incorporate this type of program into its jurisdiction, and thus, social work emerged as an industry [3].

In the years since its inception, the foster care system has had a vastly positive impact. Children in abusive and otherwise damaging households, where they are often victims of one or more types of abuse―including physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, and abandonment―are relocated to a safer environment. Parents have done some truly horrible things to their children, spanning from inflicting pain to abusing substances while pregnant to leaving them alone without adult supervision [4]. Removing these minors from such harmful environments is key to stopping the damage their parents are doing to them. Additionally, relocating the minor allows the government to press charges against any parent committing especially heinous actions against their child. Undoubtedly, foster care gives children a safer way to grow up compared to the alternative of allowing them to remain in unstable households; according to a study by Chapin Hall at University of Chicago, nearly 80% of those who went through the out-of-home care system reported having an overall positive and helpful experience [5].

Yet, the fact of the matter is that it is not enough to simply remove these children from toxic home environments. Many are traumatized by their experiences and fail to receive the adequate care they deserve for social growth. The truth is that 50% of foster care youth between the ages of two and fourteen have a clinically significant mental health problem, and 42% of teenagers in foster care have at least one mental health disorder for which they are not receiving adequate treatment [6]. Additionally, though nearly 70% of foster youth want to go to college, about 1 in 4 children aging out of the system do not have a high school diploma or GED [7]. The same study conducted at the University of Chicago found that a third of respondents suffered from substance abuse disorders and half had run away from their out-of-home care. With regards to education, “adolescents in [this] study were at higher risk for grade retention, more than twice as likely to be suspended, and nearly four times as likely to be expelled from school as their peers” [5]. While the foster care system aptly stops abuse, it needs to be improved to address the trauma and negative lifestyle dispositions that are often overlooked, factors that greatly increase an individual’s risk of incarceration.

The combined effects of a traumatic childhood, a higher likelihood of a mental health disorder, and home instability put foster children in a disadvantaged position where they are much more likely to face future imprisonment. When placed in a group home, youths are 2.5 times more likely to have an issue with law enforcement and those that lack home stability because they are placed into five or more foster homes have a 90% chance of entering the justice system [1]. Research also shows that a broken family life is one of the largest factors affecting criminal behavior. According to The Heritage Foundation, the absence of a father or father-like figure is one of the most important causes of crime. Having a close role model that deters aggression in a child’s early life is critical for their emotional and social development. There is a clear correlation between the rate of violent teenage crime and families in which the authority figure is absent [8]. Additionally, the lack of a mother or mother-like figure’s love often makes it harder for children to develop a sense of trust and security. The lack of a stable family structure, therefore, increases the likelihood that children will develop tendencies that push them down the foster care-to-prison pipeline. 

A major issue, particularly among female foster youth, is sexual abuse in foster care systems. Despite out-of-home care’s purpose of stopping abuse like this, foster homes have a disproportionate rate of sexual assault. Living in foster care increases a child’s chance of being sexually abused four times compared to those in at-home living. Most shockingly, this number is 28 times larger for children in group homes [9]. Childhood sexual abuse is one of the largest factors indicating a high likelihood that an individual will end up incarcerated. This issue is particularly impactful for girls in foster care, who are much more likely than boys to be targets of sexual abuse. In fact, nearly 90% of female incarcerated individuals who spent a majority of their time in foster care experienced abuse [10]. Sexual assault in a care system meant to protect children from crimes like this is unacceptable, especially when the foster parents are responsible for the crime 40-60% of the time [11].

Increasing the quality of care that fostered youth receive is incredibly important because not only does not having a stable home environment affect a child’s social development, but early life neglect can also affect the growth of brain matter. Results from a study on infants in Romania show that “removal from conditions of severe early life neglect and entry into a high quality family environment can support more normative trajectories of white matter growth” [12]. In the study, 136 infants were raised in an institutionalized setting before half were transferred to a high quality foster system. MRI scans found that those who were moved from the institutional setting into a home setting showed a remedy of fiber growth in their corpus callosum, the part of the brain responsible for sending electrical signals between its halves. Since these years are the most formative in terms of brain development, a child’s unmet needs will stick with them and pave the way for an easy route into legal trouble if not addressed properly.

Foster parents have a tendency to call 911 more often over troubles that can be resolved and de-escalated without the help of law enforcement, which is yet another factor affecting foster care youth that contributes to the pipeline to prison. While using the police as a scare tactic works in deterring some offenses in group homes, it also results in an over-reliance on law enforcement that turns small wrongdoings into crimes. A fist fight between classmates in school might warrant a detention or suspension, for example. Comparatively, at a children’s shelter in California, a girl was sent to juvenile hall on charges of battery for hitting another girl with a bag of hotdog buns during a disagreement [13]. Additionally, because foster children disproportionately run away from home and display academic difficulties, they are more likely to be deemed truant [14]. A double standard between how foster children and non-displaced children are treated in regards to the law leaves many foster care children and teenagers unable to break free of this cycle.

The good news is that these problems are ones society can solve. It is important to remember that these issues occur in a minority of foster homes, but still far too many of them. By setting higher standards for out-of-home caregivers, such as requiring training on how to work with children, foster homes can be made into more accommodating places. When foster parents are better equipped to provide a trustworthy and secure environment, the foster child is less likely to end up tumbling down the prison pipeline. Moreover, higher standards in regards to investigating abuse claims in foster homes, especially sexual abuse, will reduce the trauma that foster children encounter in a place that is supposed to protect them. Efforts to reduce the time children spend in group homes and cut down on the number of times they are relocated would additionally provide the stability these minors need. This would impart some much needed consistency in these children’s lives and reduce the 90% likelihood that they will enter the criminal justice system [1]. As society progresses in its attention to mental health, directing funds to connect these youths with mental health professionals, when necessary, will greatly reduce their struggles with past trauma. With nearly half of teenagers in foster care not receiving adequate treatment for their mental health, these youths have the odds stacked against them [6]. Strengthening efforts to provide youths in the foster system with more structured home lives would have astronomical results in eradicating the foster care-to-prison pipeline. Because a secure and trustworthy family life is critical to a child’s social development, the foster care system must do a better job maintaining family structure for displaced children. Cracking down on over-policing in group foster homes is a necessary step to end discrimination and the struggles that hold these children back. This can be incorporated with better preparation for foster parents to reduce the need to rely too heavily on the threat of punishment. The foster system plays a key role in preventing further danger for youths, but too many children slip through the holes of the system and into prison because they are not treated with restorative care.

Works Cited:





[5] Care-Brief.pdf



[8] breakdown-marriage-family-and




[12] Allowed=y



Photo credit: