Striking Back in Anger: Delinquency and Crime in Foster Children

Foster children are family temps

Shuffled and shunted from home to home

Often lost in time till graduation into independent living

Their affect flattened and neutered by society’s unconcern

No surprise that they strike back in dispassionate anger

Offending a society that has not befriended them

The lack of a permanent home and foster care drift are obviously frustrating to a developing child who must find his or her elemental identity without roots and stability. To know who one is and to have the courage to venture out on one’s own requires a stable base. Foster care programs a child for instability and uncertainty.

The abuse/neglect that led to removal from the birth parent home coupled with delay and multiple moves can provide the basic impetus for delinquency and adult crime.

Crime against property may not be fueled as much by aggression as by a need to cope in a detached and unhelpful environment. Over a series of temporary placements, stealing may have been learned as a survival skill. Understanding this may moderate the angry reaction of a foster parent who discovers the theft.

Detachment and the destruction of the capacity for intimacy are not the only results of long stays in foster care. Delay and waiting breed frustration, which may be expressed in aggression. The anger may erupt in childhood or it may lie hidden. While childhood anger can be addressed and socialized in a stable home, it may also surface in later years.

Adult crime and violence are not uncommon in those individuals whose empathy is stunted and who grow up without the conscience normally fashioned through a concern for the well-being of others. Add resentment and anger to a lack of compassion and you have a dangerous person in process. The psychiatric literature labels these people “psychopaths.” Multiple-placement children have been referred to as “psychopaths in the making.”

Individuals with a history of foster care are diagnosed at a significantly higher rate than the general population with Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Conduct Disorder and Antisocial Personality. These DSM-V psychiatric diagnoses are often externally expressed in delinquency and crime.

Crime and attachment

“The most violently angry and dysfunctional responses of all, it seems probable, are elicited in children and adolescents who not only experience repeated separations but are constantly subjected to the threat of abandonment.”[i]

“Social bonding” was introduced by Hirschi as a concept to explain a major cause of juvenile delinquency.[ii] The “bond” resides in the child and involves four factors or systems: attachment, commitment, involvement and belief. Children lacking adequate levels of attachment are believed to be free from moral restraints. They are apt to act on impulse, without a conscience or feeling for others.

Continuing research has demonstrated a correlation between foster care and adult crime. Social bonds are repeatedly stressed as important in preventing delinquency.

  • More than 70 percent of all state penitentiary inmates have spent time in the foster care system. (California State Legislature)
  • A federal study of former foster care wards reported that 75 percent of Connecticut youths in the state’s juvenile justice system were once in foster care.[iii]
  • When children are tempted to engage in unacceptable behaviors, children with strong social bonds have a greater likelihood of conforming, and are less likely to become delinquent.[iv]
  • Eighty percent of prisoners in Illinois spent time in foster care, according to a survey by the National Association of Social Workers.[v]
  • Problems with early attachment are apt to generalize during the adolescent years and set the stage for a failure to bond as an adult. The result is a higher incidence of both aggression and passionless crime.[vi]
  • A variety of studies reported that 30 percent to 40 percent of foster children have been arrested since they exited foster care. Over one-fourth have spent at least one night in jail and over 15 percent had been convicted of a crime. This compares with only 3.2 percent of the general population who were on probation, in jail, or on parole in 2005.[vii]
  • One in four of the 20,000 children who “age out” of the foster care system each year will be incarcerated within two years.[viii]
  • Nearly 20 percent of young prison inmates spent part of their youth in foster care. Data further shows that 44 percent of children placed in foster care are arrested at least once, while the same was true of only 14 percent of children who stayed with their biological families. Bonding may provide one interpretation of this surprising but significant difference. Children who remain in an abusive home may still have the advantage of a bonded relationship. Children in foster care are in temporary homes, subject to sudden and multiple moves, with a lack of significant attachments.[ix]
  • Many other authors have researched and confirmed the fact that a foster care background is significantly correlated to adult crime and violence.The evidence is overwhelming.[x]
  • Children aging out of the foster care system experience numerous difficulties, including an increased risk of engaging in delinquency and crime. Residence in group homes doubled the risk for delinquency. Ryan et al identified two major predictors of a more favorable outcome. One was school enrollment. The other was “placement stability,” otherwise known as a permanent home.[xi]
  • Children who experience multiple moves within the foster care system are more likely to engage in delinquency than those who expect to stay where they are. Even children who merely anticipate a change in placement (perceived instability) were significantly more likely to be involved in delinquency.[xii]
  • In 2009, Kingsley reported on the considerable research done to support the Hirschi theory that the lack of relationships and attachments is a significant cause of juvenile delinquency.[xiii]

Out-of-home care experiences were found significantly correlated with violent crime. Multiple foster care placements contributed to an increase of 3 percent for each placement. Youths in group care were 80 percent more likely to engage in violent crime than those in traditional foster care. Multiple placements were also significantly correlated with an increase in nonviolent crime and a high risk for arrest. As a foster child approaches transition to adulthood, having attachments reduces the risk of arrest.[xiv]


The accumulating body of evidence demonstrates that placement instability is associated with weak attachments and juvenile delinquency. This is clearly a chicken/egg problem: Children are moved because they misbehave and they keep misbehaving because they continue to be moved. Placement in group homes only increases the descent into delinquency. Nevertheless, the correlation between lack of placement stability and delinquency demands some innovative thinking. The ideal would be a stable home with committed parents who were willing to stay the course.

The temporary nature of foster care and its uncertainty contributes to a significantly higher outcome of delinquency and crime.

Chapter 8 Striking Back in Anger: Delinquency and Crime in Foster Children Notes

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

[ii] Travis Hirschi, Causes of Delinquency, (Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1969)

[iii] Fred Bayles, “Onslaught of problems threatens nation’s foster care system,” Los Angeles Times, May 7, 1995.

[iv] Frank Furstenberg, Jr., and Mary Hughes “Social capital and successful development among at-risk youth,” Journal of Marriage and the Family, 57, 1995, 580-592.

[v] Beth Azar, “Foster care has a bleak history,”  APA Monitor, Nov. 1995.

[vi] Greenberg summarized the research on the links between attachment, adolescent delinquency, and adult criminality. See Mark T. Greenberg, “Attachment and psychopathology in childhood,” In Jude Cassidy and Philip Shaver (Eds.). Handbook of Attachment: Theory, Research, and Clinical Applications, (New York: Guilford, 1999)

[vii] See Richard Barth, “On their own: The experience of youth after foster care,” Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, Vol. 7(5), Oct.,1990, 419-446; G. Alexander and T. Huberty, Caring for Troubled Children: The Villages Follow-up Study, (Bloomington, IN: The Villages of Indiana, 1993); Mark Courtney, Irving Piliavin, Andrew Grogan-Kaylor, and Ande Nesmith, “Foster youth transitions to adulthood: A longitudinal study of youth leaving care,” Child Welfare, 80, Nov-Dec, 2001, 685-717; Corrections at a Glance, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 

[viii] Bill Baccaglini, “The “aging out” dilemma plaguing the foster care system,” The Huffington Post, Oct. 2013.

[ix] Joseph J. Doyle, Jr., “Child Protection and Adult Crime: Using Investigator Assignment to Estimate Causal Effects of Foster Care,” NBER Working Paper No. 13291, 2007.

[x] See the following examples: Fanshel, D., Finch, S., and Grundy, J. “Foster children in life-course perspective: the Casey Family Program Experience,” Child Welfare, Vol. 68(5), Sept-Oct, 1989, 467-478; Paul D. Steinhauer, The Least Detrimental Alternative, (Toronto: U of Toronto, 1991); Gregory Keck and Regina Kupecky, Adopting the Hurt Child, (Colorado Springs: Pinon, 1995); Charlie Lloyd, “Risk factors for problem drug use: Identifying vulnerable groups,” Drugs: Education, Prevention & Policy, Vol. 5(3), Nov, 1998, 217-232; RA Desai, J. Lam, and RA Rosenheck. “Childhood risk factors for criminal justice involvement in a sample of homeless people with serious mental illness,” Journal of Nervous & Mental Disease, Vol 188(6) Jun, 2000, 324-332; Jaana Haapasalo, “Young offenders’ experiences of child protection services,” Journal of Youth & Adolescence, Vol. 29(3), June, 2000, 355-371; and D. Freedman,  and D. Hemenway, “Precursors of lethal violence: a death row sample,” Social Science & Medicine, Vol. 50(12), Jun, 2000, 1757-1770.

[xi] Joseph P. Ryan, Pedro M. Hernandez, and Denise Herz, “Developmental trajectories of offending for male adolescents leaving foster care,” Social Work Research. Vol. 31, No. 2, June, 2007, 83-93.

[xii] Joseph Ryan, Mark F. Testa, and Fuhua Zhai. “African-American youth in foster care and the risk of delinquency: The value of social bonds and permanence,” Child Welfare, 87, Jan. 2008, 115-140.

[xiii] Emily Kingsley, “Juveniles and status offenses: The impact of Hirschi’s bonds on juvenile delinquency,” Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, Vol. 23, 2009, 117-129.

[xiv] Gretchen Cusick, Mark Courtney, Judy Havlicek and Nathan Hess, Crime During the Transition to Adulthood: How Youth Fare as They Leave Out-of-Home Care, (Chicago:  Chapin Hall at U. of Chicago, 2011)


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