Children Grow Up Healthier in Enriched Foster Care

Foster Care Enrichments

A Harvard University study found that children in enhanced foster-care programs had dramatically fewer medical problems as adults. Below, some of the extra services found beneficial to foster-care programs:

For Foster-Care Kids

— Mental health screening

— Tutoring

— Summer camps

— Job training

For Foster-Care Parents

— More financial assistance

— Parenting skills training

— Support from case workers

For Case Workers

— Better trained

— Earned higher salaries

— Lower case loads

At a Glance

— Every year, 3.6 million children and youth are investigated as potential victims of abuse or neglect.

— 25 percent of children and youth investigated (899,000) on average are confirmed as victims of abuse or neglect.

— On any given day, there are about a half million children living in foster care in the United States.

Source: Casey Family Programs, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Data are as of Sept. 30, 2005.

There are big, long-term health payoffs in mental and physical well-being when foster-care services to children are enhanced, a new study suggests.

Kids generally go into foster care as a last resort: when maltreatment or neglect at home is extreme and unremitting. Such abuse can have long-term consequences on the mental and physical health of children as they grow up.

A new study, published in the latest edition of the Archives of General Psychiatry, looked at whether more enriched and supportive foster care can help mitigate some of the long-term problems foster kids face.

The study compared two groups of adults from Oregon and Washington state who, as teenagers, had been placed in foster care because of abuse at home.

The social and economic backgrounds of the two groups were similar, but one group had been placed in the states' public foster-care systems. The other group had been put in a private foster-care program — which had more services for children and their foster parents.

The extra services included mental health screening, tutoring, summer camps and job training for kids, as well as increased financial assistance and parenting training for foster parents.

Ronald Kessler, a research sociologist from Harvard University, compared the two groups as adults. Of the 479 people who took part in the study, he found that those who had been given the enhanced foster care had dramatically fewer medical problems, such as heart disease, hypertension, ulcers and diabetes. They also had much lower rates of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse.

Extra foster-care services cost more — about 60 percent more money than the typical state-run foster care program — but Kessler says the benefits outweigh the cost.

"The outcomes are more than 60 percent better because you really get a dramatic, dramatic increase in the quality of the outcomes for the kids in the model program," he says.

The next step, he adds, is to figure out which foster-care kids benefit the most from expanded foster-care services. Kessler and his team are conducting that research now.

Emory University research psychiatrist Charles Nemeroff agrees. He suggests that the target group for a study should be children who have experienced the trauma of parental abuse and inherited a genetic vulnerability to depression or anxiety.

This group would be the most likely to suffer lasting health problems as adults and the most likely to benefit from an expanded, encompassing foster-care program.

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