Recent research at the University of Minnesota demonstrates a clear link between youth with mental health issues and both experiences with foster care and parental incarceration.
The study used data from a 2019 survey, specifically 110,000 Minnesota public school students in grades 8, 9, and 11, and found that youth who were recently in foster care and had a parent currently incarcerated reported the most adverse mental health symptoms. A disproportionate number of whom were youth of color, were experiencing poverty and were living in a rural community.
Youth who experienced being in foster care and having an incarcerated parent at some point in their lives had the highest odds of anxiety, depression, self-injury, suicidal ideation and mental health diagnoses and treatment, the study found.
The study is part of a larger research initiative aiming to look at subgroups of youth who experienced parental incarceration. This particular study examined people at the intersection of parental incarceration and foster care.
“We were able to look at all of those cross sections of these experiences and then link what that means for their mental health,” said Luke Muentner, one of the study’s authors. “The way we measured mental health was across a number of different outcomes. We looked at anxiety and depression, self-harm behaviors, suicide ideation and suicide attempts, and then ultimately if they’d ever received a mental health diagnosis and if they’d ever received treatment for that mental health problem.”
They found significant disparities across race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status and geographic region. Black, Latino and Native American children experience parental incarceration and foster care disproportionately compared to white youth. The study also found that the disparities were most prevalent for youth at the crossroads of having experienced both.
That was also true for children who experienced poverty and those who lived in rural communities of Minnesota.
Black youth made up around 6% of the total survey sample, but of those who experienced both parental incarceration and foster care, almost 11% were Black. The gap was similar for Latino students, who made up around 9% of the sample but accounted for 16% of those experiencing both systems.
Native youth made up only 1% of the students but accounted for 11% of those experiencing both systems.
These numbers starkly contrast that of white youth, who made up 71% of the sample, but accounted for 45% of those who’ve experienced both systems.
“That does not surprise me at all that those numbers are as high as they are,” said Jessica Rogers, the executive director of Connections to Independence, a local organization that offers various support to foster youth. “That’s unfortunately the systemic world that we live in and how it’s been created.”
Youth who have experienced both the foster system and a parent in the penal system are more likely to face adverse health experiences, specifically mental health challenges, Muentner said.
“Even holding constant racial disparities and poverty status and even adjusting for youth who’ve experienced only one of these systems, even holding all of those constants … those at the crossroads have the most adverse outcomes,” he said. “The fact that we see such significantly higher likelihoods of these experiences in comparison to peers who’ve never experienced any exposures to the criminal, legal or child welfare system is really poignant.”
The mental health aspect of the study was self-reported, meaning that the students shared what mental health challenges experienced and any medical treatment they received. Those who experienced both systems faced mental health issues like anxiety and depression at nearly double the rates of the total survey sample.
Among the full sample, about 26% surveyed self-reported anxiety, compared to 44% of those who experienced parental incarceration and foster care. Similarly, about 22% of the full sample experienced depression, but that percentage nearly doubled to 41% among youth who experienced both parental incarceration and foster care.
Connections to Independence (C2i) works with youth ages 14 through 25, both people who are in and have aged out of foster care. Some of their programs include classes teaching independent living skills, counseling, case management and workforce development and support.
“So many different mental health issues arise with our young people in foster care due to just the initial removal from their home, which is extremely traumatic for a young person to endure,” she said. “And then a lot of our kids move from foster home to foster home, so that’s compounded trauma on top of trauma.”
She says that youth who have been in foster care experience PTSD at twice the rate of veterans of war, one study found. Anxiety and depression are the most common among the youth at Connections to Independence, Rogers said.
“When you don’t know if you’re gonna be in that same home, you don’t know what’s going on with your family, with your siblings, there’s gonna be a very high level of anxiety,” she said.
During the pandemic, youth at C2i faced heightened anxiety and depression. In Rogers’ 14 years with the organization she said prior to the pandemic there had been only one failed suicide attempt. In one year plagued by COVID, there were four attempts among its youth.
“We have some young people who are part of our organization, but they don’t come to group sessions or our group activities cause that’s just so overwhelming for them, or certain behaviors will trigger them,” Rogers said.
What do the findings tell us?
The significant gaps and differences in the number of youth experiencing these systems say a lot about society, Muentner said.
“I think it speaks a lot towards systematic racism; the disproportionate policing, both in terms of the criminal legal system and the child welfare system,” Muentner said. “This just goes to show how families of color, families experiencing poverty and those who maybe live in more under-resourced or underfunded communities experience systematic surveillance at a disproportionate rate, which makes them more likely to be exposed to each of these systems, and then also makes them potentially more likely to face adverse health experiences because of their exposure and interactions with these systems.”