The Evolution of Foster Care; Placement to Treatment to Development

Stage I: Placement

Foster care has largely been driven to focus on the placement of children and not because of the rewards in the system (outcomes), but largely because of the punishments (risks) in the community. When something does go wrong with a placement, an injury or death of a child or youth, the forces around the foster care system punish it severely, but rarely constructively. The rest of the time those forces; the public, media, advocacy groups, are largely disinterested.

Stage II: Treatment

Treatment is the next step in the foster care evolution from placement but is not the fully evolved state that our children—and particularly adolescents—need. No one should be defined by their faults. If we could change people by focusing on what is wrong with them we wouldn't have such a long history of tragedy in the way we've excerbated addictions and alcoholism through the so-called "War on Drugs." The reality is that most of the children and youth with whom we work have been traumatized somewhere in the process—whether in the path they took to reach us or the path we put them on while with us. The Annie E. Casey Foundation tells us that children in the foster system have twice the rate of trauma as returning war veterans1.

Trauma leads to a whole host of disorders that are used to identify our children and teens. Many of these disorders may ease or even disappear once the trauma is treated. We often wind up treating symptoms (disorders) and not the cause (trauma). Worse still, when identifying a young person by their symptoms we risk typecasting them with a disorder that may become a label for life.

In his book, Age of Opportunity, the author, Lawrence Steinberg, tells us most teens grow out of antisocial behaviour if they are not labeled, a very small percentage would actually harden into adult deviant behaviours, they simply grow out of them2. To quote Steinberg, “Most teenage delinquents don’t become persistent adult criminals. People tend to grow out of crime, just as with other sorts of risky and dangerous behavior, which declines as people mature through their twenties. As they lose some of their interest in sensation seeking and become better at self-regulation, most adolescents with a delinquent past start to turn their lives around.”

The Youth Transitions Funders Group tells us that detaining teens has a way of hardening criminal behaviour in young people and making it a part of youth self-identification. “No experience is more predictive of future adult difficulty than confinement in a secure juvenile facility. Confinement in a secure facility all but precludes healthy psychological and social development. Without enough freedom to exercise autonomy, the gradual process of maturation— learning self-direction, social perspective and responsibility —is effectively cut off. Research shows longer stays in juvenile institutions do not reduce recidivism. In fact, youth with the lowest offending levels report committing more crimes after being incarcerated.3

Stage III: Development

The final step of foster care evolution is development. Moving beyond placement and even treatment to focusing on development. Only within the last two decades and primarily in the last decade have we learned of the huge developmental growth in the adolescent brain. This is a window of growth that Lawrence Steinberg calls "The Age of Opportunity." It comes around once in life and there are specific tasks needing to be accomplished during this time. It is a simply unethical to hold young people in “placement mode” during this stage of critical development without setting them on the road to completing these tasks successfully.

We'll look closer at these tasks in future blogs.


Trauma-Informed Practice with Young People in Foster Care, Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, Issue Brief #5, page 4,

AGE OF OPPORTUNITY; Lessons from the new science of adolescence, Laurence Steinberg, Ph.D., (c) 2014 by Lawrence Steinberg, Pages 167-168

YOUTH TRANSITION FUNDERS GROUP Lisa McGill, Director, Blueprint available at 2012 , Written by Julie Peterson, Pg. 6


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