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  • Iris Neubecker

Youth in foster care experience high levels of mental health challenges

Due to neglect and child abuse by his biological parents, Marcial Cradick was placed into a corrupt system.

It wasn’t jail.

It was foster care.

And after four homes, four families, and four schools, there were four times he was told to pack his belongings.

From being placed in a group foster facility at 10 in Costa Rica, to re-entering the system once he was brought to the United States, Cradick has experienced every child's nightmare.

The nightmare of feeling neglected.

Unfortunately, this is the case for over 400,000 children who experience the foster care system, according to recent data shown by Child Welfare Gateway.

And like those children who became just a number in the system, Cradick continues to experience mental health challenges 30 years later. With few resources available in foster care, Cradick was unable to seek therapy as an adolescent.

This is often the case, as 80% of children in foster care face mental health issues, and mental and behavioral health remains the greatest unmet health need nationwide for those placed in the foster program.

Factors contributing to these mental health issues include trauma stemmed from frequent transitions, broken relationships, and trouble meeting basic financial needs.

A continual lack of provided mental health resources creates long-term issues, often putting foster children a step behind children who grow up in loving families.

“Kids just don’t have access to therapists or other providers that have knowledge about some of the grief and loss of developmental trauma issues,” said Dr. Emily Belknap, owner/psychologist at BridgePoint Therapy.

Cradick certainly believes therapy could have helped him as a kid.

“If I had better treatment, I think I would have been better set up for the long run." - Marcial Cradick

Cradick believes much of his depression is attributed to living 10 years in various group facilities.

Cradick’s depression first stemmed from physical abuse by his biological parents back in Costa Rica even before he was placed into foster care.

However, “it got worse once I was brought to America since I moved around a lot,” said Cradick.

For young people in foster care, this is unfortunately often the case.

Dependable environment crucial

“Just the fact they’re being removed from their birth parents and placed with foster parents, that’s a trauma,” said Belknap.

For child protection services, placement stability continues to be a growing challenge.

In fact, fewer than 40% of states are able to place young people in two or fewer foster settings, according to a 2018 study on the vital role foster parents play when helping children adapt.

It’s up to the agencies to make the decision to invert and remove a child from their home if it means placing them in a safer, healthier environment.

Even when youth experience placement disruption for the intention of placing them with a family better equipped to meet their needs, this can have a lasting impact on their mental well-being.

“I know the kid I was in foster care with, he was very depressed because he didn’t want to move,” said Cradick. “He was with that family for a long time.”

Stable relationships essential

In order to thrive both mentally and physically, children need consistency, predictability, and a positive relationship with a caring adult.

But for those placed in foster care, meeting these needs can feel nearly impossible as they often experience what’s called developmental trauma.

Developmental trauma “is when your caregiver, your parents, the person who's supposed to provide safety, protection, comfort, when that person is also a source of pain, neglect, or abuse,” said Belknap.

That trauma alone has a lasting impact on the youth's ability to form trusting relationships with either their foster or adoptive parents.

“If you have a lot of insecurities in your relationship or can’t fully trust or find comfort in a parent, that sets you up for a lot of anxiety and insecurity, or just behavioral issues,” said Belknap.

Cradick has found that a lack of trusting adults in his life has led to separation anxiety, which he continues to struggle with within all aspects of his life.

“I cling to more relationships now,” stated Cradick.

One of the main contributing factors to children being passed around to different families is that there is a national shortage of foster families available.

A shortage of foster parents, and an increasing number of foster children in the United States, have led thousands of children to be placed in group facilities, which many child welfare experts agree is a child's last resort.

Such environments aren’t healthy for growing adolescents as many children are instead competing for attention or loving relationships.

In a group facility, this can often feel like a battle, increasing mental health issues amongst the youth.

However, for those placed in individual foster homes, it isn’t always much better.

“My first adoption in Mississippi, I was more in cheat care at the moment,” Cradick explained. “After we realized she didn’t care, she pushed us away.”

When a child feels loved and cared for, then suddenly told to pack their belongings the next day, it can create serious trust issues amongst growing adolescents.

This becomes a vicious cycle, as children are remaining in the system because of mental health issues that can’t be tended to due to unstable environments and relationships.

“If we don’t have that safe or secure person, who we can trust, who always has our back, or will be there for us no matter what, or will accept and love us through any mistake we make, then it’s really hard just to feel good about ourselves,” said Belknap.

Not only is it difficult for youth in foster or group facilities to establish lasting relationships because of frequent transitions, but also because they’ve rarely experienced one.

“A lot of relationships just look chaotic at some points, because they desperately want someone to attach to, but at the same time, they don’t know what a healthy relationship looks like,” Belknap explained.

Mentoring programs trying to fill the gaps

Throughout the years, a growing number of nonprofit organizations have expanded with hopes of establishing healthy relationships through mentorship programs.

In fact, the U.S. House of Representatives passed in May the “Foster Youth Mentoring Act of 2021” with hopes of expanding mentorship programs through public and private community entities.

The Act authorized $50 million in funding in order to support mentoring programs that serve youth who have experienced foster care.

Programs that are eligible to receive the funds can expand their services to improve their programs, ensuring positive outcomes for the youth.

“[Mentoring] relationships are some of the only ones who aren’t paid to be in these young people's lives,” said Evan Cutler, program coordinator at Silver Lining Mentoring.

In order to ensure better mental and physical health amongst foster youth, sometimes it's as simple as having someone there.

Through such mentoring programs, youth are able to fill a gap, which in the past had been quick to define their future.

“Having access to healthy relationships, that alone is worth celebrating and worth pursuing. Even if there isn’t a big punctuation mark part of the story, I still think there is a lot of value in that.” - Evan Cutler, Silver Lining Mentoring

Not only are these mentoring programs able to foster healthy relationships amongst the youth, but they also set them up for success by helping them meet their financial needs.

“A lot of teens in foster care are so focused on how to get their basic needs met and under so much stress that it leaves little room to have a healthy social life,” said Belknap.

Such mentoring programs which help adolescents meet their financial needs allow them to get busy with their lives in terms of inspiring means.

“If you're worried about paying rent, and paying bills, if that’s taking up all of your headspace, there's not a lot left for participating in a mentoring relationship,” said Cutler.

For Cradick, he wasn’t given this opportunity, and instead experienced a period of homelessness, after being placed in the system.

Cradick’s homelessness happened once he was kicked out of his foster home as a result of his foster parents not knowing how to accommodate his mental health issues properly.

While some may be quick to accuse the child in instances like Cradick’s, it’s important to remember foster youth have been shaped from a corrupt system in which we as citizens have allowed to form.

“The agencies..they didn’t help us,” said Cradick. “They didn’t help the kids who were mentally abused.”

For Cradick and Belknap both, they believe stability and counseling are key resources that need to be implemented to help youth in foster care’s physical and well-being.

“I think every kid in foster care should be in therapy but kind of require foster parents to be involved in that therapy too. Because, like I was saying, a lot of it is relational, so if the foster parents don’t have the understanding about the trauma themselves, then they may take a behavior personally.” - Dr. Emily Belknap, owner/psychologist at BridgePoint Therapy

For adolescents who grow up like Cradick, constantly being let down by the foster care system, a stable environment with trustworthy adults are key components to better mental and physical health. Cradick is still looking for it.

“Ya know how a mother's love is the most important thing in the world?'' asked Cradick. “All I want is to have a relationship like that in my life.”

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