Haunted by the Past: Foster Children with PTSD

In a report by the National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a branch of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, it was found that 7 to 8 percent of the U.S. population will experience PTSD at some point in their lives. Typically, when thinking about those suffering from PTSD, many think of war veterans as the demographic hit hardest by this mental health condition. However, a study by Casey Family Programs, the University of Michigan and the Harvard Medical School found that former foster children are nearly twice as likely to experience PTSD as veterans.

Foster Children with PTSD
This study reported that 1 out of every 4 children who spent time in foster care dealt with PTSD at some point during the previous 12 months. Beyond PTSD, more than half experienced at least one mental health condition, such as social phobia or depression. In a report on the study, Ronald Kessler, a co-author of the project and a professor of Health Care Policy at Harvard, said, “…foster children’s greater likelihood of mental health risk is primarily based upon the experiences, such as neglect and abuse, that children face before entering the foster system.”

PTSD occurs when someone witnesses or experiences a traumatic situation, such as mental, physical or sexual abuse. A study by the University of Amsterdam (UvA) and GGZ Rivierduinen (Trauma Center for Children and Youth) found that roughly 16 percent of children who experience a traumatic event develop PTSD. The National Center for PTSD found that girls are almost twice as likely to suffer from the disorder as boys. The Center reported there are 3 main factors that increase the likelihood of a child suffering from PTSD: how severe the traumatic experience is, how close the child is to the trauma and how the parents react to the event. When it comes to foster care, the child is often directly impacted by the trauma, and there’s commonly a lack of parental support around the time of the event.

PTSD typically isn’t diagnosed until a few months after the event to ensure the perceived symptoms aren’t passing distress or anxiety that can be expected after any exposure to trauma. Symptoms can be grouped into three main categories: increased stimulation, flashbacks and avoidance. The National Center for PTSD reported that, in adolescents, the more severe the trauma the more symptoms they are likely to display. These symptoms can emerge shortly after the incident or lay dormant for several years.

If PTSD goes untreated in children, it can lead to the development of a variety of other mental disorders, such as depression, which is one of the most prominent illnesses in people between the ages of 14 and 55. While some children can experience remission without treatment after a few months, others who don’t receive treatment can exhibit symptoms for years.

Treatment for PTSD varies from child to child and should be based on the results of a mental evaluation. Depending on the outcome and the age of the child, treatment plans can involve Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, Psychological First Aid, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing or Play Therapy.

There’s a staggering amount of research being conducted to find out how deep PTSD in foster children runs and the problems it creates. With every new study, the need for more support for foster children suffering from the disorder is bolstered. The issue has garnered particular interest from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs which dedicates a section of its website to providing detailed information on PTSD, ranging from its causes to where parents can find treatment resources.

In 2000, Congress established the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) to raise the standard for mental health care for children, increase access to treatment services and provide parents with information from top medical professionals. Since its inception, NCTSN has grown from 17 centers to over 150. The Network offers resources, training and support to those working with children who have experienced traumatic events.

In the Department of Health and Human Services’ 2015 report on child maltreatment, it was found that New Jersey was below the national average of children reported as victims of abuse. The study found that 0.48 percent of children in New Jersey experienced abuse in 2015, while nationally that figure was 0.91 percent. These fractions of percentages can seem insignificant until seeing just how many children they represent. New Jersey’s 0.48 percent represents 9,689 children with the national percentage equaling 683,487. While these numbers do not directly reflect foster children with PTSD, most children who enter foster care are victims of abuse, which is one of the most prominent causes of PTSD in children.

To help foster parents in New Jersey care for children with PTSD, Foster and Adoptive Family Services (FAFS) offers a home correspondence course on posttraumatic stress disorder in foster children. The course explores what causes the disorder, its symptoms and how to help children suffering from PTSD. FAFS offers this course at no cost to all licensed resource parents in New Jersey.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that nearly 70 percent of adolescents with unaddressed mental health conditions stand a greater chance of abusing drugs and spending time in prison. Foster children with PTSD can be helped by early detection and treatment of the disorder. Help during this pivotal time can result in better outcomes for these children.

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