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How Foster Care Fails Children with Autism

Federal policies are critically needed to ensure that children with autism can thrive in a society that too often ignores their needs.

The foster care system is notorious for disrupting children’s sense of stability, frequently shuttling them from one placement to the next and severing the relationships crafted in each location. Such an experience can be traumatizing for any child, but for children with autism this constant instability often leads to especially devastating consequences.

Autism spectrum disorder encompasses a wide range of symptoms, including repetitive behaviors, trouble with social skills, and difficulty engaging in reciprocal communication. Children with autism depend fiercely on routine and familiarity; in turn, the lack of predictability and structure typical of the foster care system can have a drastic impact on their emotional well-being. In the absence of consistent healthcare providers, trusted adults, and daily routines, these children may enter into a vicious and self-perpetuating cycle of behavioral problems and failed placements. In the short term, this may lead to frustration and dejection. In the long term, it can be the difference between thriving in a successful placement and lingering in a state of limbo. 

Despite the overrepresentation of mental illness in foster children, the mental health resources available to individuals under state care are abysmal at best. For children with autism, this lack of mental health services is particularly harmful. Few federal regulations exist with regard to the assurance of mental health evaluations and services for children in foster care, and there is an alarming lack of information available on the prevalence of various mental health conditions within the system. There are no present estimates for the total number of children with autism in foster care. The statistics that do exist, however, are not promising. Foster children with disabilities are more likely to be maltreated, less likely to experience positive adult outcomes, and rarely receive the complete range of special education services to which they are entitled.

Further studies have indicated that less than 50 percent of states require children to obtain mental health assessments upon entering the system. Similarly, despite estimates that up to 80 percent of foster children have conditions that could be addressed with mental health services, the Children’s Bureau reported that less than 6 percent of foster children are estimated to receive these services through the Department of Children’s Mental Health. The absence of data on the mental health status of children in foster care compromises our capacity to provide vital services to this extremely at-risk population.

Federal policies are critically needed to ensure that children with autism may thrive in a society that too often ignores the needs of those who fall outside the conventional mold. Special education plans, structured social settings, and interdisciplinary collaboration are paramount to warding off negative trends. Furthermore, improved training programs for foster parents and staff of children with mental health conditions, early and comprehensive psychological assessments, and enhanced service provisions could lead to better short-term and long-term outcomes for foster children with autism. Children’s Rights is among those currently fighting to ensure that mental health services are mandated across the country, but it will require the commitment of governments nationwide to make these services more widely available.

Autism is often represented by a puzzle piece – a symbol of the complexity and uniqueness of each person who bears the classification. However, unlike puzzle pieces, children with autism can flourish regardless of their placement if provided with proper care and contingencies that help them feel safer within unpredictable situations. The puzzle we must solve, therefore, is how we can do right by these children – both ethically and legally – regardless of the challenging cards they have been dealt.