Almost Half of Adolescents in Non-Kin Foster Homes Attempt Suicide
A study published in 2018, “Characteristics of Foster Care History as Risk Factors for Psychiatric Disorders Among Youth in Care” by Nathanael J. Okpych and Mark E. Courtney of the University of Chicago found that placement instability correlated with mental health issues and 42% of youth in non-kin foster homes had attempted suicide.
The researchers studied 706 late adolescents in the California foster care system. Of this group researchers assessed about 50% with a psychiatric disorder. They found that “When assessed individually, placement instability predicted posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), alcohol and substance use problems, and suicide attempt.” (p. 269) Subgroups within the sample, had different outcomes. The group researchers called “the disquieted drifters.” “The disquieted drifters was the smallest group, comprising just 5% of the sample. About 80% of this group was female, 60% was Hispanic, and nearly 40% identified with a sexual minority status. A defining characteristic of disquieted drifters is that they displayed the most volatility while in foster care. They lived in about six placements per year, roughly two fifths had more than one foster care episode, and the primary placement for about 40% of this group were in the most restrictive foster care settings (i.e., group homes and residential treatment centers) . . . The foster care system struggled to establish a stable placement for disquieted drifters and these youth were disproportionately placed in settings for adolescents with a high need for behavioral health services; they will likely continue to require intensive services to as they transition to adulthood.” (p. 278)
This study points to two needs in the foster care system in California. First, children and adolescents need placement stability, and kinship placements are preferable. Second, we need to ensure that our foster youth have immediate access to mental health services to mitigate the trauma they suffered that brought them into foster care and the ongoing trauma of living in a non-kinship foster home.