Somatic Psychology

Bridging the mind-body gap

The Foster Care System and Its Victims Part 3

An abused and compromised foster care system carries negative consequences.

The Consequences of Abuse and a Compromised System

In part one of this series, I talked about the paradox of the foster care system, and in part two, I talked about the problems inherent in the system. Part three describes the difficulties of leaving the foster care system and the real costs of foster care abuse.

The Problems With Emancipation

The child welfare system is designed to take care of children up until they are 18 years old. In certain cases, they might even emancipate earlier. But what happens once they grow too old for the child welfare system?

The sad truth is that many grown-up foster children end up homeless and on the streets. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that up to 50% of former foster or probation youth end up homeless within the first year and a half of their emancipation. Foster children who also have disabilities (autism being a prevailing one) should, in theory, transfer from foster care or group homes into adult living facilities, but this does not always happen because of long waiting lists to get into such housing. They then have to find a way to survive on the street.

Even for a smart and capable former foster child, finding a job as an adult can be difficult without a proper formal education and college degree, which, unfortunately, is the case for many former foster children. A patient of mine, Amy (name changed), who was a former foster child, told me: "Something nobody mentions is that most kids, prior to emancipating from foster care and group homes, don't graduate from school. Or, as in my case, truly the last formal schooling I had (apart from adult learning) was going to 6th grade. Neither in the foster home nor in the group home was there much emphasis on school. Oh, technically, you are required to go, but often, kids don't... is that their fault?"

Amy - who, regardless of being highly intelligent, pointed out that she was not given the resources she needed to get her degree while in the foster care system - eventually pursued her GED independently as an adult. She confided to me that she was never taught the importance of education or given the correct tools to help her study. Her foster parents and social workers were stuck at a base level of operation. She indicated: "I think these foster parents and group home counselors - whether earning hours or money - have a duty to get these kids educated. I mean, the odds are already stacked against them. Without an education, aren't they just adding ammunition to what might already be a vulnerable state? Some of the smartest kids I have ever known were in the system, and sadly, like me, were never taught the value of education or quite simply how to study, and therefore, were given up on. While I did finally get my GED, it took me years to finally get up to a proper level of reading and writing. But let me tell you, I sure could have used the help in my earlier years."

From the point of view of "the system," there are a few things that make it hard to properly educate foster children:

  • Their home lives are often inconsistent.
  • They switch schools and teachers more often than most kids.
  • The impact of potential trauma on their psyches can make learning more challenging than for other kids.

The Impact of Abuse and Trauma

Abuse and trauma often can have negative impact on children. This cannot be overstated. Whether a child experiences abuse at the hands of biological parents, the child welfare system, or simply as a result of undergoing chronic change, long-term effects can (and often do) impact that child well into adulthood.


Abuse can offer obvious repercussions in the form of broken bones and critical injuries. It can impact brain development and cause learning disabilities. And it can carry long-term affects well into adulthood. Childwelfare.gov has a laundry list of long-term consequences of child abuse and neglect based on studies that included 905,000 children reported abused in 2006 alone. Some of the more sobering consequences of child abuse include:

  • Impaired brain development, which can impact a child's cognitive growth, their language skills, and their learning ability
  • Physical health problems, including broad-spectrum issues that affect victims well into adulthood, like allergies, asthma, ulcers, arthritis, and high blood pressure
  • Emotional consequences: low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, panic attacks, suicidal tendencies, PTSD, trust issues, and attachment disorder
  • Mental health issues: a much higher risk for developing clinical psychiatric disorders
  • Detrimental behaviors: smoking, drinking, drug use, overeating, and sexual promiscuity
  • Social difficulty: a tendency toward antisocial traits and borderline personality disorders, even violent behavior
  • Juvenile delinquency

The remnants of an abusive childhood can impact an adult's ability to function in school, work, relationships, and life in general. There is seemingly no boundary to the negative repercussions of having suffered an abusive childhood. In my own work with adult survivors of abuse, I've seen examples of grown-up victims who:

  • Lack motivation because they were conditioned to give up trying
  • Are so afraid of poverty and loss that they constantly overwork themselves to avoid the looming imaginary threat of homelessness
  • Subconsciously hold onto extra body weight out of a fear of not having enough to eat or to divert attention from the opposite sex
  • Were never properly taught about personal hygiene
  • Constantly re-enact their childhood relationships by remaining in abusive situations
  • Don't feel close to anyone
  • Have extreme difficulty communicating with others

Sometimes, abuse and neglect of children can become a terrible cycle in which adults abused as children can become abusive with their own children. The negative impacts of child abuse can so grossly alter a person's physical, psychological and behavioral growth that it may perpetuate the cycle of child abuse and keep the foster care system "in business."

Susanne Babbel, Ph.D., M.F.T., is a psychologist specializing in trauma and depression.

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