Characteristics of Foster Care History as Risk Factors for Psychiatric Disorders Among Youth in Care

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Abstract

This study evaluates foster care history characteristics as risk factors for psychopathology. We examine characteristics of youths’ foster care histories separately and as a gestalt (i.e., identification of latent classes). Six mental health disorders and lifetime suicide attempt were assessed via in-person interviews with a representative sample of older adolescents in California foster care (n = 706). Information on respondents’ foster care histories were obtained from state administrative data. Half of the sample (47.3%) screened positive for a psychiatric disorder and 1/4 (25.2%) had attempted suicide. When assessed individually, placement instability predicted posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), alcohol and substance use problems, and suicide attempt. Primary placement type and maltreatment type were also associated with 1 or more psychiatric disorders. When foster care characteristics were considered in concert, 6 latent classes were identified: veterans, returners, treated stayers, midrangers, late stayers, and disquieted drifters. Three latent classes (returners, late stayers, and disquieted drifters) were at increased risk of psychiatric problems relative to 1 or more of the other latent classes. Both separate foster care characteristics and the gestalt of youths’ foster care histories identified risks of psychiatric problems. Results from these analyses can inform the development of risk assessment tools.

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