The first study of mental disorders among children in foster homes paints a distressing picture.
Severe lack of care, being shuffled from one home to another, physical and psychological abuse in their original families – these are factors that increase the risk of foster children being encumbered with mental health problems.
As many as 51 percent of such children aged 6-12 fit the criteria for one or more mental illness diagnoses. This is ten times the rate for Norwegian school children overall.
“It’s surprising that the prevalence is so high,” says research fellow and psychologist Stine Lehmann of Uni Health, the Regional Centre of Child and Youth Mental Health and Child Care in Bergen.
“We shouldn’t forget that things go pretty well for about half of these children. But it’s alarming that such a high proportion have problems,” she says.
The children’s diagnoses were distributed rather evenly among the categories of behavioural problems, reactive attachment disorders, ADHD, anxiety and depression. No gender differences were found with regard to these problems.
Lehmann led the study along with researchers at the University of Bergen and the University of Oslo.
Emphasis on protection
“Norwegian child welfare is family oriented and the law requires child welfare officials to try to intervene and correct the situation prior to placing children in foster homes,” Lehmann says. “In view of the harmful consequences that we have documented of insufficient care and of child abuse, we should balance our approach so that even more weight is put on protecting the child.”
She also described other results that show that children placed in foster homes in Norway spend three years in their biological home on average after interventional measures were initiated, prior to being moved into foster homes.
“In many cases the initiatives from child welfare to help are successful, but an average of three years is a long time for children who suffer more harm during that time,” she said.
“Help initiatives should concentrate more on whether the child is sufficiently protected,” Lehmann said.
Over half with multiple diagnoses
The results also show that many of the foster children grapple with several difficulties simultaneously, with regard to behaviour as well as emotions.
“Over half of the children with a mental disorder have multiple disorders,” says Lehmann.
She thinks the findings demonstrate a huge need for a more thorough evaluation of the individual child’s mental health when it is taken out of biological parents’ home and placed in a foster home.
Major risk factors are acute lack of care and being subjected to violence.
“Mental and physical abuse prior to placement entails the biggest risk of mental disorders. This kind of trauma can result in behavioural disorders and ADHD,” explains Lehmann.
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