A study published in 2018 identified certain foster care characteristics that are associated with later psychological problems. The researchers were able to distinguish six distinct subgroups of foster youth, and some of these subgroups had a particularly high need for mental health treatment. These findings may help to create a risk assessment tool to identify these youth. The article by Nathanael J. Okpych and Mark E. Courtney at the University of Chicago is titled, “Characteristics of Foster Care History as Risk Factors for Psychiatric Disorders Among Youth in Care” can be found here.
Of the 706 foster youth in California studied almost half had a psychiatric disorder, and a quarter had attempted suicide. According to the researchers, “When assessed individually, placement instability predicted post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), alcohol and substance use problems, and suicide attempt.” (p. 269) This finding is consistent with other research. The researchers also found a disturbingly high rate of suicide attempts for youth living in a non-relative foster home. Although only 9% of the 709 youth lived in a non-relative foster home, 42% reported attempting suicide.
This study also confirmed findings from other research showing an association between emotional abuse and suicide and externalizing disorders, and between sexual abuse and depression, but did not confirm a link between physical abuse and depression as other studies have. Youth who enter foster care in adolescence are at a higher risk of depression.
The breakthrough for this study was their ability to identify six sub-groups of foster youth who had characteristics when taken as a whole predicted later psychological problems. This allows researchers to develop a screening tool that could identify foster youth with a high need for behavioral health services before they develop symptoms, which would be a significant improvement in services for foster youth.