Striking Back in Anger: Delinquency and Crime in Foster Children

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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

Foster children are destined to grow up in uncertainty. 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.

Detachment and the destruction of the capacity for intimacy are not the only results of long stays in foster care. Frustration can lead to aggression. An unstable childhood generates a deep-seated and often subconscious anger. While childhood anger can be addressed and socialized in a proper setting, left untreated, it may erupt in later years.

Adult crime and violence are likely outcomes 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.” Multi-placed children are referred to as “psychopaths in the making.”

The abuse/neglect that led to removal from the birth parent home can provide the basic impetus for delinquency and adult crime. Nevertheless, delay and multiple moves may well amplify the initial anger.

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

“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.” (Bowlby, 1973)

Travis Hirschi introduced his theory of Social Bonding in his 1969 book “Causes of Delinquency.” His major focus was to contribute to an understanding of the causes of juvenile delinquency. For Hirschi, 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. 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.

The importance of social bonds in preventing delinquency is supported by many other studies:

  • Over 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. (Bayles et al, 1995)
  • 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. (Furstenberg et al, 1995)
  • Eighty percent of prisoners in Illinois spent time in foster care, according to a survey by the National Association of Social Workers. (Azar, 1995)
  • Problems with early attachment are seen to globalize 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. Greenberg in 1999 summarized the research on the links between attachment, adolescent delinquency, and adult criminality.
  • A variety of studies reported that 30 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. (Barth, 1990) (Alexander & Huberty, 1993) (Courtney et al, 2001) (U.S. Department of Justice, 2005).
  • Eighteen percent of the 20,000 children who “age out” of the foster care system each year go to jail. (Nightline, 2002)
  • Almost 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 provides 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. (Doyle, 2007)
  • Many other authors have researched and confirmed the fact that a foster care background is significantly correlated to adult crime and violence. They include Fanshel et al (1989), Steinhauer (1991), Keck (1995), Lloyd (1998), Desai et al (2000), Haapasalo (2000), and Freedman et al (2000). The evidence is overwhelming.
  • Children aging out of the foster care system experience numerous difficulties, including involvement with juvenile justice and adult corrections. They are at increased risk of engaging in delinquency and crime. Residence in group homes doubled the risk for delinquency. In 2007 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.

The accumulating body of evidence in the above studies shows that placement instability is associated with weak attachments and juvenile delinquency. In conclusions to their own 2008 study, Ryan et al report: “Children predicting a change in placement (perceived instability) were significantly more likely to experience delinquency petitions as compared with those predicting no change in foster placement….The children that experience multiple movements within the foster care system are more likely to engage in delinquency as compared to children with no movements.”

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