Children and young people who are in the care system will have experienced significant trauma in their early lives. This could be sustained neglect, ongoing abuse, the death of a parent or violence within the home. It’s no surprise to hear then that this vulnerable group are at greater risk of developing severe or complex mental health disorders. A recent survey has found that one in six (16.0%) children aged 5 to 16 years old have a mental health disorder, which is up from one in nine (10.8%) in 2017. The number is likely to be much higher for looked-after children, however UK foster care mental health statistics are in desperate need of updating. The last comprehensive survey was conducted in 2002, so the findings from this are extremely out of date.
Despite this, it’s widely acknowledged and recognised that children in care are more prone to suffer from poor mental health. Here’s why.
Foster care and mental health
A history of abuse, neglect or trauma
Children that come into the care system have been through some of the worst times imaginable. In some cases, they may have been repeatedly beaten, sexually abused or severely neglected. All at the hands of their primary caregiver, which is usually their birth parents or a close family member. The psychological impact this has on a child is huge, because children need to form healthy bonds with the adults around them in order to learn how to trust, develop a sense of self and regulate their emotions. Without a nurturing environment with loving and responsive caregivers, it’s basically impossible for a child to thrive.
When a child is exposed to a series of traumatic events during the early stages of their neurological development, there are a wide range of lasting effects. From emotional and behavioural to social and biological, all aspects of a child’s functioning can be impacted. In most young people with a history of complex trauma, it’s likely one or more of these areas will be significantly affected, but it’s important to remember that not all children respond to trauma in the same way.
It’s also important to remember that not all children in care have a history of complex trauma. Other reasons for being in care include bereavement, illness or a family crisis such as being evicted. These are still traumatic events that can lead to a child developing mental health issues in foster care.
Broken family relationships
The end goal of foster care is to always get the child back with their birth family. That’s why our foster parents work closely with social workers and may liaise directly with birth parents to maintain a connection with the child’s family. However, in some cases, it’s not safe or in the child’s best interests to return to their family. This can lead to a breakdown in family relationships that may cause mental health issues later on in life, such as depression.
Mental health issues in foster care can also be a result of sibling separation. Sadly, it’s not always possible to keep siblings together, mainly because the many foster parents don’t have the room to accommodate several children, or they may not be able to support a sibling with specialist needs. This can have a negative effect on a child’s mental health, as they’ve gone from sharing a home and close emotional bond with their brothers and sisters to being alone in a stranger’s house.
At FCA, we work hard to keep sibling groups together. Children are more likely to settle in a foster home with their brother or sister at their side, as they can support each other and share the experience, making it much less daunting than being alone. Where possible, we match sibling groups with foster families able to meet the physical and emotional demands of caring for multiple children at a time.
Some children may have had several foster placements before they come to us, or they may have lived in residential units and are now seeking a foster family. Experiencing this level of instability is bound to have an impact on a child’s behaviour and ultimately, their mental health. When a child’s early relationships are unstable or unpredictable, they sadly learn that they can’t depend on others to help in times of distress. They may also develop a fear of abandonment or have a baseline feeling of not being wanted or good enough to receive love.
At FCA, we strive to carefully match each child with a suitable foster home to ensure it’s a success from the very start. Even if the child just needs a safe place to stay for a few nights, it’s vital they are placed with a family that can tend to their specific needs to make the transition into the home as smooth as possible.
We know that each child in the care system has gone through a world of pain already, and that we’ll always see the effects of foster care on mental health. As an agency, we can guarantee that all of our approved foster parents have access to excellent training courses – including therapeutic ones that cover mental health and foster care training - 24/7 support and access to regular therapy services to give each child a chance at living a happy, healthy life.
To learn more about how trauma impacts a child’s development, the effects of trauma and how to support traumatised children in your care, download our Guide to Complex Trauma in Children. Or, if you’re thinking about starting a career in fostering or want to transfer to us, please get in touch. We’d love to answer any questions you have about FCA or the fostering process.