Former foster care youth says system "makes you feel disposable"

Aug 19, 2014

Credit user Meggy / flickr

"It kind of makes you feel disposable, and that’s not a good feeling at all." 

That's how 22-year-old Jerry Caster describes his time in Michigan's foster care system. Caster bounced around from foster home to foster home starting when he was just 5 years old. He eventually "aged out" of the system when he was 19, and since then he's been alternately homeless or in jail. He wouldn't share with me why he was taken from his parents at the tender age of 5, except to say he suffered some serious trauma and as a result lives with mental illness. 

Unfortunately, Caster's story is not uncommon. According to Michigan's Department of Human Services webpage, there are roughly 13,000 Michigan kids in foster care at any given time, and more than 400,000 across the country. There's a fair amount of research about how trauma impacts a child's brain, and how countless former foster care youth suffer from mental illness. Here's some mental health and foster care data from the National Council on Disability, an independent federal agency:

One study by the National Institute of Mental Health found that nearly half (47.9 percent) of youth in foster care were determined to have clinically significant emotional or behavioral problems. Likewise, researchers at the Casey Family Programs estimate that between one-half and three-fourths of children entering foster care exhibit behavioral or social competency problems that warrant mental health services.

Youth who have “aged out” of foster care also show high rates of psychiatric disability. According to a study by the Casey Family Programs and Harvard Medical School, a high number of former foster children have psychiatric disabilities as adults. Over half of foster care alumni had diagnoses compared to 22 percent of the comparison group.  

I'm taking a deep dive into the lives of foster care youth for an upcoming radio documentary. No doubt many of the stories I hear will be sad. As Jerry Caster told me, bouncing from home to home really "takes a toll on the kids." But I'm also hoping to find stories of resiliency in the face of such bleak outcomes so that we can glean some better understanding of what might help foster care youth overcome their pasts and find success, however they define it.