The High Price of Instability

For every young person who ages out of foster care, taxpayers and communities pay an average of $300,000 in social costs like public assistance, incarceration, and lost wages to a community over that person's lifetime. Do the math and you can conservatively estimate that this problem incurs almost $8 billion in social costs to the United States every year.[1]

Foster children lack grounding. Moving back and forth in an allegedly temporary system for an average of two to three years sets a pattern of instability that may be irreversible. Aging out to live independently and alone is the ultimate insult.

Stability has two faces, one psychological and the other concrete and tangible. Bonding and permanence are these two faces of stability. We find stability in our important relationships with family and friends. As these relationships deepen to significance, they are better known as bonding. When something exciting or distressing happens, we want to share that moment with someone close. We all have a hunger for intimacy. Everyone needs someone who will always be there for them. Bonding is the psychological marker of stability.

A permanent home is the other face. In the recent economic downturn, one of the two major crises people feared most was foreclosure and the loss of a home. A place to be warm and safe and comfortable. Somewhere to go to lick our wounds.

The problems for a child who has been left to drift in temporary care and shifted from home to home are severe enough. They are made considerably worse after age 18 when there is no fallback home or family. Not only does the child lack a forever mentor or family, but the young adult has understandable problems in forming close relationships. Facing the world with no family and lacking personal skills to fashion a new one, it’s no wonder a teenager will become the problem for society that he is for himself.

Classes on how to live alone may provide tools, but without the necessary personal connections, they are far from enough. Statistics on foster children emancipated to independent living show a high rate of failure.

Holiday time highlights the absence of family for a young adult who has been emancipated with no place to call home. “Who cares that today is my birthday? Not anyone. Not even me. I am free. I have been emancipated to independent living. Who is there for me? Where do I go for Thanksgiving? Or Christmas? Everyone else is going home to renew of memories and exchange gifts. Families are celebrating but I will be alone.”

Bonding and a permanent home relate to what John Bowlby meant by a stable base. Prolonged foster care and emancipation to independent living deprive emancipated foster youth of both.

Dealing with separation and loss

“Many of the most intense of all human emotions arise during the formation, the maintenance, the disruption, and the renewal of affectional bonds. In terms of subjective experience, the formation of a bond is described as falling in love, maintaining a bond as loving someone, and losing a partner as grieving over someone. The threat of loss arouses anxiety. Actual loss causes sorrow. Both situations are likely to arouse anger. On the positive side, the unchallenged maintenance of a bond is experienced as a source of security and the renewal of a bond as a source of joy.”[2]

Separation and loss are critical life events. Most adults can still recall their first broken heart and how rejected and devastated they felt. They felt certain they could never love or be loved again. To some extent that first loss colors the initiation and course of future romantic relationships.

“Young children are upset by even brief separations. Older children are upset by longer ones. Adults are upset whenever a separation is prolonged or permanent, as in bereavement.”[3]

The newborn begins life hard-wired by genetics. Changes in the brain, however, can actually be observed and measured while the child learns and grows and bonds. The brain is, in a real sense, becoming rewired, especially in relation to early life experiences and human interaction. The child’s experiences with relationships, both positive and negative, are being embedded in neural circuits.

From infancy on, parents and caregivers are aware of the pain and damage that separation and loss can cause. Parents anticipate this and prepare for it in many ways. The universal game of Peek-a-Boo is a playful way of hiding the face, practicing temporary loss, and then reassuring the child by uncovering the face again. Tension is usually relieved with peals of laughter.

Subsequent research has confirmed Bowlby’s attachment theory and inspired a revolution in child psychiatry. “Bowlby’s broad point about the danger of early depriving separations, not only in terms of the suffering it causes but in its disturbing impact on character formation, had been made in a powerful way.”[4]

Pardeck concludes that many foster children develop important psychological ties to their foster parents that may be as strong as those with their birth parents.[5]

“The more continuity is disrupted, be it through multiple moves or through being left too long in limbo while wardship and future plans are being contested, the greater the risk of severe and lasting personality damage…Many juvenile court judges, lawyers, and even Children's Aid Society workers still do not fully appreciate how damaging it is for a child to be left in limbo while his case is adjourned again and again to suit the convenience of the parents or the legal system.”[6]

The normal problems of separation and loss are compounded by a system that thoughtlessly moves a foster child from home to home for trivial reasons.      Multiple placements lead some children to develop a social indifference while others express the loss in “affect hunger, wanting constant attention. These reactions frequently last a lifetime.”[7]

Children who experienced many placements showed an increase in misbehavior. Even children who began without problem behavior developed problems following multiple placements, suggesting that everything possible should be done to keep placements to an absolute minimum.[8]

Brian, an 11-year-old foster child said it well: “You have to keep moving, and moving, and moving, until finally someone keeps you. That kind of sucks.”[9]

What happens when bonding is interrupted?

Frequently at foster parent gatherings, the organizers will trot out a young man or woman who grew up in foster care and is now educated and successful in a productive career. Like Jackie Robinson dealing with racial prejudice, this poster child has beaten the odds. The fact that he is introduced at all indicates that this is an unusual person. And to become this unusual person required extraordinary talent, tremendous drive and a good amount of luck. Rarely do all these factors come together in one person. For most in similar situations, whether young black baseball players in the 1940s or foster children at any time, the cards are so completely stacked against them that their best effort will not bring them success, but only setbacks and discouragement.

Bowlby warns of the danger of disrupted family relationships, which can result in “the emotionally detached individual who is incapable of maintaining a stable affectional bond with anyone. People with this disability may be labeled as psychopathic and/or hysterical. They are often delinquent and suicidal.”[10]

Bonded relationships are critical to stability in child development. When a bonded relationship is threatened or severed, trauma results.[11]

“Neither blood ties to the child nor sex of the primary caretaker seem to be as important as the relationship this person has to the child.”[12] Later, the same author lists the many negative consequences of the lack of attachment and bonding. Children develop a “What’s in it for me?” attitude and express their fear of attachment with reactions of poor eye contact, withdrawal, chronic anxiety, aggression, indiscriminate affection, over-competency, lack of self-awareness, control battles, and delayed conscience development.

“Early life experiences perhaps carry an even greater weight in terms of how an individual reacts to new situations. Early life physical and sexual abuse carries with it a life-long burden of behavioral and pathophysiological problems. Moreover, cold and uncaring families produce long-lasting emotional problems in children. Some of these effects are seen on brain structure and function and in the risk for later depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.”[13]

“Child development specialists agree that the ability to form lasting bonds with any caregiver is severely reduced if a child undergoes too many separations or lingers in impermanence too long. By allowing impermanence for abused or neglected children in our care we are causing further damage. We are damaging children’s capacity to form the lasting ties that make families secure and safe.”[14]

Iwaniec summarizes the research on the problems that follow interrupted bonding. They include the “…reduced capacity to form meaningful emotional bonds with others; development of a fragile sense of self with resultant interpersonal difficulties; tendency toward negative self-evaluation; dysfunctional cognitions; and an impaired repertoire of defenses and coping strategies.”[15]

By interrupting relationships with traumatic moves and separations, any attempt to bond is disrupted. The child’s developing brain becomes “miswired,” setting the stage for learning disorders, behavioral problems, and mental or emotional dysfunction.

The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a report in 2008 on “Understanding the Behavioral and Emotional Consequences of Child Abuse.” In it, they warn again of the serious consequences resulting from disruption and trauma in early childhood. “Once thought of as an enigmatic ‘black box,’ the brain is now seen as a complex of specialized, interactive organs, constantly developing through interaction with the environment and each other. Nowhere is this development more dramatic than in the first 3 years of life as the young brain undergoes sweeping structural change as it senses and adapts to the environment in which it finds itself.”[16]

The trauma begins with the initial abuse and/or neglect, when a decision is made to change homes for the basic safety and good of the child. When separation occurs, self-blame by the child is very common. “If I were a good and desirable person, this would not have happened.”

The foster care system is set up to provide temporary relief for the abused and neglected child while a more permanent plan is arranged. However, because of inefficiency and bureaucracy in the child welfare system and delays in the courts, the very systems designed to protect the child become major abusers. Delay, by allowing attachment and bonding to take place in the foster home, and then interrupting it again, takes a heavy toll on human health and well-being. The impersonal systems create the unbonded child, the child who suffers from a failure to attach.

The transition from foster care to independence is difficult. Thirty-seven percent of these youths experienced one or more homeless episodes, incarcerations, victimizations, or sexual assaults.[17]

Employment outcomes for emancipated foster children are disproportionately grim. In a 2008 three-state study (California, Minnesota, North Carolina), Macomber et al[18] found that only 60 percent of aged-out youth were employed at age 24. This rate was lower than both the national average and for youth from low-income families. Further, their average monthly income was $572.00, far less than the national average of $1,535 earned by their peers.

Fifty-one percent of young women in a 2010 study of former foster children were living with one child by age 21.[19] That figure rose to 62 percent by age 23. The federal Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act (2007) makes no mention of providing parent training and support for emancipated foster youth. This is a significant omission.

Unresolved separation and loss, multiple placements, delays of six months or more, and interrupted bonding can lead to psychopathy, aggression, a loss of capacity for intimacy, and mental illness in adolescence and adulthood. If the child must face the crisis of loss repeatedly, an unfortunate pattern of anticipating rejection may develop. This expectation will shape future relationships even when the fear of loss may appear no longer realistic to an outside party.

Statements of fact

  • Interrupted bonding is significantly correlated with childhood and adult mental illness, with adult crime and violence, and with homelessness and poverty.
  • The inability to cope with separation and loss in a growing child may set the stage for anxiety and depressive disorders, and even adult psychoses.
  • Multiple-placement children are psychopaths-in-the-making. The separation from early attachments breeds anger, which erupts in adult crime and violence at a significantly higher rate than within the general population.
  • Homelessness is a lifestyle learned in foster care. Children who grow up without a permanent home take to the streets as adults in disproportionately large numbers, living without a family and without a roof.
  • Children who are emancipated without a permanent home begin their lives with no source of family financial backing, no possibility of any inheritance, and the likelihood of beginning and ending their job careers at minimum wage. Emancipation is the final verdict on the failed pursuit of a permanent home.


Earlier attachments or their absence predetermine the formation of later relationships. We come to expect what our experiences have taught us. We greet and deal with new relationships based upon our prior internal working models or patterns.

The problems begin with the initial abuse or neglect that led to the child’s removal. However, the damage is compounded by multiple caregivers, waiting for permanence and emancipation. Attachment insecurity increases the risk for childhood and adult psychopathology.

As will be seen in the next three chapters, foster children who age out of the system become mentally ill, spend time in jail and are homeless at disproportionate rates.

Chapter 6: The High Price of Instability Notes

[1] Jim Casey. Youth Opportunities Initiative. Issue Brief: “Cost Avoidance: The Business Case for Investing In Youth Aging Out of Foster Care,” May, 2013.

[2] John Bowlby, The Making and Breaking of Affectional Bonds, (London: Tavistock, 1979)

[3] John Bowlby, Attachment and Loss, Vol. 2, Separation, Anxiety and Anger, (London and New York: Hogarth, 1973)

[4] Robert Karen, Becoming Attached, (New York: Warner, 1994)

[5] John T. Pardeck, “Multiple placement of children in foster family care: An empirical analysis,” Social Work. Vol. 29 No. 6. Nov-Dec, 1984.

[6] Paul Steinhauer, The Least Detrimental Alternative, (Toronto: U of Toronto, 1991).

[7] Steinhauer, ibid.

[8] Rae R. Newton, Alan J. Litrownik, and John A. Ladsverk, (2000) “Children and youth in foster care: Disentangling the relationship between problem behaviors and number of placements,” Child Abuse & Neglect, Vol. 24 2000, 1363-1374.

[9] Jason B.Whiting, J. and R.E. Lee, “Voices from the system: A qualitative study of foster children’s stories,” Family Relations Vol. 52, No. 3, 2003.

[10] Bowlby, 1979, op.cit.

[11] The following authors all discuss the problems that follow when bonding is disrupted: Mary Ainsworth, “Attachments and other affectional bonds across the life cycle,” In Peter Marris, Attachment Across the Life Cycle, (New York: Routledge, 1993); Gregory C. Keck and Regina Kupecky, Adopting the Hurt Child, (Colorado Springs: Pinon, 1995); Jeremy Holmes, Attachment, Intimacy, Autonomy, (New Jersey and London: Aronson, 1996); Daniel A.Hughes, Facilitating Developmental Attachment: The Road to Emotional Recovery and Behavioral Change in Foster and Adopted Children, (New Jersey and London: Aronson, 1997)

[12] Vera Fahlberg, “Attachment and Separation - Putting the Pieces Together,” Chelsea, MI: Department of Social Services, 1979.

[13] Bruce McEwen, “Stress and the Brain,” In States of Mind, R. Conlan, ed. (New York: Wiley, 2007)

[14] Steinhauer, op.cit.

[15] Dorota Iwaniec, The Child’s Journey Through Care: Placement Stability, Care Planning, and Achieving Permanency, (Belfast: Queen’s University, 2006)

[16] American Academy of Pediatrics. “Understanding the emotional and behavioral consequences of child abuse,”  Clinical report. Vol. 121. Number 3. Sept, 2008.

[17] Mark Courtney, Irving Piliavin, Andrew Grogan-Kaylor, and Ande Nesmith. “Foster youth transitions to adulthood: A longitudinal view of youth leaving care,” Child Welfare, 80, Nov-Dec, 2001, 685-717.

[18] Jennifer Macomber et al. “Coming of Age: Employment Outcomes for Youth Who Age Out of Foster Care Through Their Middle Twenties,” Urban Institute, 2008.

[19] Mark Courtney et al, “Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth: Outcomes at age 26,” (Chicago, Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, 2011).


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