Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Foster Care System and Its Victims: Part 2

Once placed in foster care, a child is not guaranteed safe.

In Part 1 of this series, I introduced the paradox of the foster care systema system that is designed to support abused and neglected children, but on the other hand may end up causing additional harm in some cases.

The "Safety" of Foster Care

Once placed in foster care, a child is not always guaranteed to be safe from abuse. In fact, cites a troubling statistic from one study, claiming that over 28% of children in New York alone are abused while in "the system." However, former foster children I've worked with believe that the incidents of in-foster-care abuse are much higher. Amy (name altered), an adult client who spent over seven years in the foster care system, told me that roughly 9 out of 10 fellow foster children she crossed paths with claimed that they had been abused by their foster parents.

She also expressed that foster children are often taught by their circumstances not to speak up and are conditioned to think abuse is "normal." Additionally, Amy felt that it was not in their best interests to report abuse and risk being relocated, where they might be subject to yet more "unknown" abuse ... and also have to endure another drastic change. She explained, "A foster child is already taught that you don't speak up. It's dangerous. And don't forget that mom/dad already gave you up, so best to shut your mouth, or you could end up moving again." While it seems like further studies of foster parent abuse are needed to gain more accurate statistics, the bottom line is that abuse happens too often.

In one recent (2010) and widely publicized case, an ex-foster child took his previous foster parent to court on sexual abuse charges and was awarded $30 million in damages. The abuse reportedly happened while he was in the California foster care system for five years in the '90s. The accused foster parent had been allowed to foster multiple kids despite criminal records of abuse, drug use, and drunk driving incidents. He was eventually convicted of "nine counts of lewd or lascivious acts on a child by force, violence, duress, menace, and fear, and seven counts of lewd or lascivious acts on a child under 14." He was given a 220-year prison sentence. The private foster family agency responsible for awarding this man's foster license shouldered some of the blame for negligent vetting and monitoring of the home.

A Compromised System

During my own time working with foster care agencies and group homes, I often witnessed the agency staff become overwhelmed with the number of children they were required to monitor -not to mention the pressure of completing mountains of paperwork. The paperwork would often trump the actual visits in priority because it was required in order to keep the agency funded and our jobs intact. There seemed to be incentives in place to keep children with foster families they were assigned to, which sometimes led to lenience when evaluating conditions. (Foster agencies receive money for each placement. If a child is removed from a placement, the agency can lose the commission. Although foster agencies and social workers usually have the child's best interests at heart, these factors may contribute to a less than efficient system of properly monitoring foster homes.)

Many of the caseworkers (like myself) were fairly young, inexperienced recent graduates of psychology school putting in their time to accumulate enough hours to get their state licensing. Having little experience, we did not always know how to detect abuse or handle the enormous emotional volatility that is inherent in such a job. Other caseworkers were older adults with years of exposure to the failures of "the system" and defeatist attitudes that did not help them in their jobs. Ex-foster children I've spoken with reported jaded caseworkers who always seemed to "turn a blind eye," never asking probing questions or visiting the sleeping areas of their charges.

Making things even trickier, there are statutes of limitations and other restrictions in place to prevent the prosecution of perpetrators or state agencies too long after-the-fact. In Pennsylvania, for instance: " ... the statute of limitations in most civil assault cases is two years from the date of the injury. If the injured victim is under the age of eighteen (18), the victim must file suit before they reach the age of twenty (20)." (This information is according to the law firm Andreozzi & Associates, who specialize in foster care abuse claims.) However, there are sometimes ways around these restrictions. They say that "One exception to the statute of limitations for sexual abuse and molestation in Pennsylvania surrounds what is known as the common law ‘discovery rule.' The application of this rule allows victims to file suit within two years of the time: (1) they discover the injury; and (2) they discover the source of the injury. However, it is important to note that Pennsylvania, unlike many other states, has rejected the repressed memory theory as a tool to apply the discovery rule."

Group Homes

While issues with foster care placements in family homes are one thing, state-run group homes are a whole other matter. But, as you might expect, group homes are not always the safe havens that they should be either.

Within the group home system, children are moved around to facilities with varying levels of security and structure depending on their behavior and psychological/emotional growth. A change in level often means a child is immersed in yet another strange new environment. Each time a child is moved to another level, he or she gets new teachers, new therapists, new classmates, new roommates, and a new life. Foster children who have moved multiple times often develop detachment disorder: they become unable to attach to others as a defense mechanism. Sadly, this often results in a child who is not able to form normal long-lasting relationships that are crucial to success later in life.

The occurrence of child abuse in group homes is not uncommon, even though staff there are trained and educated to help children. In the New York Times article "Learning to Cope With a Mind's Taunting Voices," Joe Holt describes the church-sponsored residential facility in Alabama, Childhaven, where he grew up:

"There were regular beatings, sometimes with a board, sometimes with a Ping-Pong paddle, sometimes with a razor strap," Mr. Holt said. "You had to memorize a portion of the Bible, and if you didn't, you'd get a beating. Once I got beaten so badly I thought I was going to pass out."

According to the New York Times article, at least two staff members at Childhaven eventually pleaded guilty to child abuse, and the staff has "long since turned over," but have other facilities like Childhaven instituted similar safeguards?

The Phenomenon of Emotional Detachment

Foster or group home children generally lack the childhood experiences that teach other children to trust authority figures. What can seem like a lack of emotion or attachment ability in these kids may often be a veiled protection mechanism: they may remain reserved within relationships in order to protect themselves from further hurt. They might innately be aware of the sad truth that they are viewed by caseworkers and foster parents as potentially "troublesome," and that—unlike most children—they must prove themselves to be trustworthy before they will be fully loved. This can seem like an overwhelming task for an already overly stressed child with compromised coping mechanisms. One former foster care client expressed: "What one has to consider is that foster kids are taught to not trust ... so while it seems that we are detached, the truth is, often we know full well what is going on. But yes, we do have to protect ourselves, and hence, what seems like detachment to the clinical eye is simply what a 'normal' individual would call 'reserved.'"

In Part 3 of this series, I'll talk about the costs of a compromised system.


More from Susanne Babbel MFT, PhD
More from Psychology Today
More from Susanne Babbel MFT, PhD
More from Psychology Today