University of Minnesota Medical School researchers are adding scholarship to an understudied area: the mental health effects for young people who have been in foster care and had a parent locked up. The Imprint spoke this month with Luke Muentner, a 28-year-old postdoctoral research associate who co-authored a recent study exploring the topic.
Published in the international journal Child Abuse & Neglect in September, the research found that youth who experienced foster care or parental incarceration were at greater risk for mental health concerns. But those impacted by both were at the highest risk for poor mental health, including anxiety, depression or suicidal ideation.
To explore the link between foster care, parental incarceration and mental health, researchers used data from the 2019 Minnesota Student Survey, a voluntary and anonymous statewide school-based questionnaire. In the survey, 8th, 9th and 11th graders responded to questions about their activities, behaviors and experiences related to school, family and health.
Nearly 2% of the 112,000 students surveyed experienced both foster care and parental incarceration, the study found. A disproportionate number were youth of color, low-income or lived in a rural community.
The majority of those in the child welfare system also experienced parental incarceration.
In his research, Muentner — who has worked in the child welfare field for the last 10 years — has largely focused on children’s exposure to parental arrest and strategies to support parents’ reentry. His social work practice has involved case management with men who were recently released from prison and designing community-based interventions for fathers who were previously incarcerated.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.
Your study focuses on youth who have experienced both parental incarceration and foster care. Can you describe the connection between the two systems and their joint impact on families?
There are a number of different ways in which the criminal legal system and the child welfare system can be linked. Maybe a parent is incarcerated for some sort of child abuse or neglect case — that actually is a relatively small proportion of all reasons why children may be at the intersection of these two systems. Other potential reasons or pathways are a lack of alternative caregivers at the time of arrest. So, maybe a parent gets arrested and there’s nowhere else for kids to go for care.
There’s also indirect mechanisms, like poverty or instability, that just make folks more likely to be involved in either of these two systems. And there’s also social selection factors that may increase risk for one if not both systems, things like substance use or mental health. Those experiencing poverty and those who live in more rural or under-resourced communities are disproportionately impacted by both the criminal legal and the child welfare system, as well as both.
How likely are youth in foster care to experience parental incarceration? And vice versa? And who is most likely to navigate both of these systems?
We know that in most cases, when dads go to prison, oftentimes mothers step into caregiving roles or assume greater caregiving responsibility if they’re already the primary caregiver. So in those instances of parental incarceration, foster care is less common because moms tend to take on more responsibility. In instances of maternal incarceration, foster care is far more likely.
Based on your research, what are the unique mental health challenges associated with children who have experienced both parental incarceration and foster care?
The different mental health indicators that we looked at were anxiety, depression, self-injury, suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, and mental health diagnosis and ultimately treatment. We found that across the board, separate experiences of parental incarceration and foster care were associated with increased likelihoods of all of those mental health concerns compared to youth who’ve never experienced either system.
But we saw the most detrimental consequences for youth who navigated both systems. So while involvement in one or the other is associated with adverse outcomes, involvement in both is associated with significantly the worst. Those who had recent foster care and current trends of incarceration are 16 times more likely to have attempted suicide than their peers who never are involved in either of the systems.
How do you interpret these findings? Why are youth at this intersection more likely to experience adverse mental health concerns?
The chronic exposure to systems involvement and what that means for destabilized family life, social stigma, access — or lack thereof — to support services, is really what makes these students potentially more likely to report adverse mental health concerns. We know that those experiencing poverty are at heightened risk for both systems’ exposure. Students of color are also at heightened risk for facing systemic racism and historical disenfranchisement at disproportionate rates. All of that likely plays into what’s going on here.
In your view, what is needed to mitigate the risk of poor mental health for young people who are straddling these systems?
We call on school counselors and social workers to start intervening on some of these adverse, maybe anxiety- and depressive-related symptoms. We also call for a number of expanded evidence-based therapeutic programs that particularly target self-harm behaviors, suicidal ideation and suicide attempts. And we talk about the needs for those services to be tailored so that they’re culturally relevant for a diverse group of youth, and that the access issues are attended to, so potentially folks who live in more rural or under-resourced communities have access to those therapeutic programs.
As a child navigates different care placements, ensuring that their providers or their treatment regimens transfer with them across each of those different settings.
It’s also important to emphasize upstream approaches. And one of the biggest ways that can be done is just overall reducing the number of children who are put in those sorts of precarious and compromising positions. So changing the ways in which we go about those sorts of systems of surveillance and doing our best to hand rights and autonomy back to parents and families while still promoting overall child safety and family well-being.
Do you have plans to expand and build upon this research in the future?
We want to look at other health indicators for youth at these crossroads. So maybe that’s things like substance use or measures of physical health and physical well-being. But then I also think it would be interesting to look at protective factors within this population too, recognizing that so many of these youth carry with them a significant amount of strength and resilience. We definitely still want to continue to explore implications for adverse health consequences, but also start thinking about the protective factors that really help you thrive despite the stressful or traumatizing experiences that they may be going through.
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