Foster Children Essay

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Foster care is one remedy for the social problem of child abuse, neglect, and dependency. Designed as a short-term solution to ensure the safety of children, critics have assailed foster care as creating additional social problems for children and families, including for young adults who transition out of foster care, referred to as “aging out.” Children who age out of foster care reach the maximum age of service by the foster care system, 18 years of age in most states, or 21 for persons with developmental disabilities, or somewhere between 18 and 21 after completing high school.

Aging out becomes a social problem in the failure of the foster care system to secure permanent adoptive families for these children earlier, leaving them to become adults who have no permanent legal families. Children not successfully reunified with families of origin or alternative family members—such as an aunt, uncle, or grandparent—leave foster care, transition directly into adulthood, and lack placement with permanent families.

About 20,000 individuals age out of foster care each year. Their living conditions and outcomes, compared with those of individuals who have never experienced foster care placement, are typically worse. Because the foster care system seldom adequately prepares aging-out youth for independence, they often experience other social problems in adulthood and suffer lower levels of overall well-being compared with the general population.

The foster care system fails in several ways to prepare youth for independence. First, many people who age out of foster care complain that the initial reasons they were placed in foster care—child abuse, neglect, and dependency—were never adequately processed by the foster care system. Many complain that they were left to manage all of the psychological impact of experiencing child abuse and neglect by themselves. While the long-term effects of child abuse and neglect vary, the effects do tend to be negative. Those individuals who were provided counseling services for the effects of child abuse, neglect, and dependency frequently claim that the therapeutic approaches used by counselors were ineffective and that they struggled and still struggle with the long-term effects of child abuse, neglect, and dependency.

The foster care experience itself seems to be related to negative life outcomes for aged-out adults. It may be that reentry and drift impair independent living skills acquisition by interrupting both formal education and other important learning experiences, such as independent living skills training that would have more adequately prepared aging-out youth for independence. As a result, child welfare professionals have developed independent living skills training to better prepare older foster children for more successful transitions to adulthood. Although there are many foster care agencies providing excellent independent living skills training, many adults who have aged out of foster care indicate the training was inadequate because it relied on generic workbooks, was not community specific, did not require long-term learning by foster children, and was not ongoing long-term training.

Aged-out adults may contribute to other social problems in adulthood. Individuals who aged out of foster care are likely to move from foster care to public assistance. Indeed, aged-out adults are more likely to need public assistance over the life course compared with the general population. Thus, it appears that society pays high costs because many aged-out adults are not able to make it independently. This may be due to some other negative outcomes aged-out adults experience, such as lower levels of education, high unemployment, poverty, low-wage jobs, homelessness, and a disproportionate involvement in criminal activity. That is, they are more likely to be victims or perpetrators of violence and to serve jail time. Aged-out adults are also more likely, when compared with the general population, to experience young parenthood, divorce, and relationship instability.

Overall well-being is lower among people who have aged out of foster care than among the general population. For example, aged-out adults are more likely to experience depression and other mental health problems, lower self-esteem, lower aspirations for the future, lower levels of social support, less knowledge and understanding of family histories, and lower overall life satisfaction than the general population.

Aging out of foster care is therefore a social problem for many reasons. The inadequacy of the foster care system, the long-term impact of child abuse, neglect, and dependency, the overarching negative life outcomes experienced by aged-out adults, and their contributions to other social problems over the life course provide some evidence of the problematic nature of aging out of foster care. Aging out of foster care often generates difficulties that challenge aged-out adults throughout their lives.

It is important to note, however, that even though many individuals who have aged out of foster care experience fewer pro-social adult outcomes in general, many others can and do become successful adults. Furthermore, it is not clear that aged-out youths actually have worse adult outcomes than individuals who were reunified with family.


  1. Blome, W. W. 1997. “What Happens to Foster Kids: Educational Experiences of a Random Sample of Foster Care Youth and a Matched Group of Non-Foster Care Youth.” Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal 14(1):41-53.
  2. Buehler, Cheryl, John G. Orme, James Post, and David A. Patterson. 2000. “The Long-Term Correlates of Family Foster Care.” Child and Youth Services Review 22(8):595-625.
  3. Holland, Donna Dea. 2005. “ALife Course Perspective on Foster Care: An Examination of the Impact on Variations in Levels of Involvement in the Foster Care System on Adult Criminality and Other Indicators of Adult Well-Being.” Ph.D. dissertation, Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, OH.

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