"A lot more can be done to guarantee that children with disabilities in foster care are provided the complete encouragement, support and help they need to ensure their safety, permanency and well-being."
At any given time in America there are around 500,000+ children in the foster care system, even though nearly 800,000 are served by the system every year. Approximately 13% of all children between the ages of 6 and 14 experience a form of disability. Reports estimate that children with disabilities are between 1.5-3.5 times more likely to have experienced neglect or abuse than children without disabilities.
While determining the cause of a disability for an abused child is many times difficult, research has assessed that disabilities are often caused and/or exacerbated by abuse. Data also suggest that children born with forms of disabilities are more often abused and more often relinquished to the child welfare system, either by force or choice. Abuse and trauma also happen within the system itself. In one study, one-third of children in foster care reported some type of maltreatment while in the foster care system. The challenge in determining the cause of disability for foster children is just one of the barriers to figuring out how to best support them.
Despite the particular cause, some troubling patterns regarding disability emerge among children in foster care. Another study regarding foster children found that more than 50% of those studied experienced mental health issues compared with 22% of children in the general population. Of the children affected, 25% experienced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), versus 4% of children in the general population. The study found that 20% of foster children experienced major depression compared to 10% of children in the general population. Other issues found to be prevalent among foster children included panic syndrome, social phobia, and generalized anxiety disorder.Where education is concerned it is estimated that 30-40% of children in foster care are in the special education system. A study performed in California found that 8% of foster children studied experienced a form of physical disability. Statistics such as these reveal the disproportionate numbers of children in foster care who experience disabilities.
The outcomes for children with disabilities in the child welfare system are incredibly negative as well. Children with disabilities and foster children are more likely to drop out of school and less likely to pursue a postsecondary education. Another study found that only around 9% of children with disabilities attend 4 year colleges, while another 5% attend technical, vocational, or business schools. Approximately 20% of foster children go on to college and their rate of completion is around 5%. The percentages are incredibly low. National averages are about 60% college access rate for high school graduates and a 20% completion rate among adults under the age of 25.
Additional negative outcomes for foster children also exist. By the age of 19 almost 50% of young women in foster care have been pregnant compared to 20% of young women who were not in foster care. Around 38% of foster children have been arrested, compared to the national average of 7%. Other studies estimated that approximately 22% of foster children experienced homelessness and only 43% are employed; rates far lower than national averages.
The information indicates that too many children with disabilities in foster care are not making the transition into adulthood successfully. Sadly, these negative outcomes reflect the insufficiencies and incompetencies of the systems, programs and people that serve children in foster care. More certainly needs to be done, on a number of levels, to ensure the success of these children. Yet little attention is focused on children with disabilities in foster care must negotiate their way through multiple system before reaching adulthood.There is an incredible overlap of children with disabilities and young people in the foster care system. Many advocates assert that foster care is a disability issue because the prevalence of disabilities among children in foster care is so high. Still so many people and systems associated with children in the foster care system know little about the disability world and even less about ways to help children with disabilities become self-sufficient. The numerous systems that interface with these foster children to include:
These systems are often disconnected, disjointed, and at times even at odds with each other. The situation is somewhat a result of the complexities involved in these large systems, yet blame may also be placed on the lack of a collaborative attitude due to weak federal and state encouragement.
A lot more can be done to guarantee that children with disabilities in foster care are provided the complete encouragement, support and help they need to ensure their safety, permanency and well-being. In addition, more opportunities can be provided to help them to meet the goals of self-determination, enhanced quality of life and community integration. It is also worth noting that there have already been a number of notable systems and policy improvements in the care of these children, the majority of which have happened in the past 15-20 years. But while these improvements provide hope, there remains much left to be accomplished.
Children with disabilities in foster care are at a severe disadvantage in moving toward adulthood for a range of reasons, not the least of which might be the disabilities they experience. Having a form of disability, compounded by the fact that foster care children may lack a supportive adult network to help them develop personal abilities and attributes and to navigate through some highly-complex systems, impedes their efforts to develop the educational, occupational, personal, social and life skills to succeed.
Many of the programs that exist to help children with disabilities in foster care are not based on youth development principles, or lack a youth centered philosophy. It is not uncommon for children with disabilities in foster care to be pulled out of school in the middle of class for a court hearing, something that disrupts their learning cycle, but also sends a message to the child that school is not important. In a youth centered system that coordinates systems, every effort would be made to keep students in class and arrange for court appearances after school has ended.
Helping young people to prepare for successful adult life is a complex effort. Helping children with disabilities in foster care to do so requires dedication, commitment and hard work by dozens, if not hundreds, of judges, attorneys, health and mental health care personnel, educators, caseworkers, advocates, foster parents and many other caring adults who come into contact with these children over the years. Federal and state policies and programs have to be structured to recognize this long-term investment across systems and pursue a youth centered approach.
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