At Least One-Third of Children in Foster Care Have Disabilities

NEW YORK, NY — A report released today by United Cerebral Palsy and Children’s Rights reveals that at least one-third of the more than 500,000 children and youth in American foster care systems today may have disabilities. The report, titled Forgotten Children: A Case for Action for Children and Youth with Disabilities in Foster Care, also asserts that state foster care systems have largely failed to address the unique needs of children with disabilities and the families who care for them.

The report is a summary and analysis of a range of data and research literature, and is a first-of-its-kind review of how foster care systems serve children and youth with disabilities.

“Our investigation has found that the special needs of children with disabilities are often entirely forgotten, though they represent at least one-third of all children in foster care,” said Stephen Bennett, President and CEO of United Cerebral Palsy. “The very systems intended to protect children in crisis were simply not designed to identify, assess and manage the physical, emotional and cognitive disabilities of children with special needs.”

The research indicates that children who enter foster care, on average, have already experienced more than 14 different environmental, social, biological and psychological risk factors. A full 80 percent may have been prenatally exposed to drugs, alcohol or other substances, while 40 percent may have been born at a low birth weight or premature.

Once in the foster care system, children with disabilities may face a full range of systemic problems that prevent positive life experiences. Caseworkers lack the tools to identify and assess disabilities, foster parents lack even basic information about the special needs of children placed in their homes, and children cannot access comprehensive health care services to address their special needs.

As a result, children with disabilities are more likely than other children in foster care to be neglected, abused and institutionalized, as well as experience poor educational outcomes and achieve lower rates of placement with permanent families.

“Whether they experience abuse that results in disabilities, or are victims of abuse because of their disabilities, children with special needs in foster care are dangerously at risk,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, founder and executive director of Children’s Rights. “Responsible steps must be taken to protect all children in foster care and help provide them with the opportunity for rich, fulfilling lives.”

The report by United Cerebral Palsy and Children’s Rights also identifies several promising approaches for states. Foster care systems should adopt health care standards, ensure timely and comprehensive evaluations, manage records more effectively, increase specialized services, improve training programs for parents and caseworkers, and collect and assess data regarding disability status, services and outcomes.

“If fully implemented, adequately funded and universally accepted by states, these recommendations could dramatically improve foster care experiences for children and youth with disabilities,” said Janna Starr, Director of Disability Rights Policy at United Cerebral Palsy.

United Cerebral Palsy and Children’s Rights, whose collaboration began in 2004, are working to identify and implement promising service delivery approaches for children with disabilities in foster care, while developing policy and legal advocacy strategies to address systemic problems that negatively affect their safety, well-being and opportunity to grow up in permanent families.

About United Cerebral Palsy:

United Cerebral Palsy is one of the nation’s leading organizations serving and advocating for the more than 54 million Americans with disabilities. Most UCP consumers are people with disabilities other than cerebral palsy. Through its nationwide network, United Cerebral Palsy offers services to individuals, families and communities such as job training and placement, physical therapy, individual and family support, early intervention, social and recreation programs, community living, state and local referrals, and instruction on how to use technology to perform everyday tasks. For more information, visit or call (800) 872-5827.

Chris Iseli or Brooks Halliday // 212.683.2210