How Does the Foster Care System Affect Children?

July 31, 2019

Photo: Ann Danilinaon Unsplash  

 

With the reproductive rights movement spurred as a result of recent legislation, activists and dilettantes alike are re-examining what it  means to be “pro-life.” 

 

Aside from deciding the personhood of a fetus, opponents of abortion argue that it  should be illegal because parents can enter babies into the foster care system. However, advocates say there are some flaws within the system and the experiences of children within it. 

 

In other words: what is the foster care system and how does it affect children? 

 

Children are typically placed in foster care when their parents are deemed unfit to care for them, typically by a court of law or a social work agency. 

 

The ultimate goal of foster care, however, is to reunite children with their birth parents or eventually be adopted by another guardian. 

 

Foster children can live in either  the typical foster home (the guardians in this case being two foster parents), other relatives, or in a group home. 

 

As one might expect, children in foster care face trauma from both potential physical and mental abuse, as well as the stress of uncertainty surrounding their living situation during their formative years.

 

The trauma can often have a negative effect on the child’s physical and mental health. A literature review from the American Academy of Pediatrics illustrates a positive correlation between foster care itself and issues with early childhood development. The research highlights that over 500,000 children in the system (approximately 41% of those being five years old or younger) can be subject to a few issues in early brain development: 

 

  1. Implication of abuse on early childhood brain development 

  2. The importance of establishing strong connection to child’s caregivers

  3. The foster child’s understanding of time as they go through the foster care system 

  4. Child’s response to stress 

 

The study highlights the importance of early childhood development as most of the children in the system are in the first 3-4 years of their life. These are the crucial years in which learning processes, emotions, stress coping mechanisms, and personality traits are established, developed, and made permanent within the cerebral cortex.

 

Thus, if those nerve endings are damaged due to a lack of stimulation or trauma, the impact can last throughout life and impair brain development. An example of such impaired functioning is that of the portion of the brain that facilitates communication skills, or the temporal lobe. Which can affect not only the child’s communication skills (such as recognition of words or inhibition of speaking) but also personality changes. 

 

A foster child’s sense of time can also be impaired.This is primarily due to the temporary nature of the foster care system. As a child’s perception of time focuses solely on the present, disruptions in the child’s caregiver can be detrimental to their development and thus their ability to discern between what is permanent and what is temporary. 

 

Instability, as well as traumatic experience and neglect, can also have a negative impact on the ways that children respond to stress, or their fight or flight response. 

 

In other words, a child may have a “fight” response, which involves screaming, throwing temper tantrums, inattention, withdrawal, and additional aggressive behaviors. Alternately, a child may have a “flight” response where they may become apathetic or psychologically distant and may excessively daydream. 

 

Delayed physical development may also occur in the foster care system. A study by the American Academy of Pediatrics measured physical health in terms of two outcome variables: fair or poor health (in relation to good or excellent health) and activity limitation (when the child in question has limited ability in activities either due to physical limitations or behavioral issues). 

 

After conducting a study of 95,677 children, the researchers found that children in the foster care system were more likely to be in poor health (4.2% vs. 3.1%), have asthma (18% to 8%), and experience obesity (24.1% to 15.7%).
 

When multiple studies illustrate these health disparities, it becomes increasingly difficult to ignore the various potential health issues of children within the system. 

 

Often when anti-abortion activists argue the personhood of a fetus, the hundreds of thousands of children that are already in foster care system are ignored. In fact, they are actually the ones who are in need of not only living essentials, but a loving support system. 

 

That being said, you don’t have to adopt a child outright to step up for neglected children. Ways to support foster children include supporting foster families (even household chores can help), volunteering with programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters, becoming a court appointed special advocate (CASA), or donating to organizations like The Foundation for Foster Children (or donating essentials like clothes and back to school supplies to child welfare agencies). 

 

Birth is not the only requirement for life. We need to ensure, as fortunate, privileged individuals, that children can lead a wholesome life where they not only survive, but also thrive. 

 

Zaira Khan is a junior at Mercer University where she is pursuing a double major in public health and sociology. She enjoys exploring the world around her and hopes to contribute to a more honest, thought-provoking world.

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