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Suicide Prevention Among Foster and Transitional Foster Youth

Without question, suicide leaves a community mourning, grief-stricken, and devastated. Nothing can account for the loss of life and potential suicide leaves the family, friends, and greater community to deal with in the aftermath. As we work to raise awareness for suicide prevention this month, we’d like to highlight the increase danger foster youth face. We can only work to prevent suicide amongst foster youth by acknowledging their increased risk, as well as teaching prevention methods to foster caregivers, professionals, and our greater community.

Foster Youth & Suicide Statistics

  • Foster care teens were nearly 2.5 times more likely to seriously consider suicide than their peers
  • Foster care teens were nearly four times more likely than their peers to attempt suicide
  • Childhood abuse or trauma increases the risk of attempted suicide by 2-to-5 times
  • Two thirds of suicide attempts may have direct correlation to abusive and traumatic childhood experiences
  • A study of 8-year-olds treated for or at risk for maltreatment found 10% reported thoughts of suicide

Studies show that foster youth experience a higher incidence of PTSD than combat veterans, so it is easy to see why the same youth are 3 to 5 times more likely to die by suicide than their peers. Suicide ideation is often the result of sustained trauma, depression, and other mental illnesses, which studies routinely show plague our foster youth before they enter long-term foster care. These disheartening statistics do not apply solely to current foster youth, as studies also show transitional foster youth are more than twice as likely to suffer from suicide as their peers. These statistics do not have to plague or foster youth. It may be impossible for us to change their past, but our actions can directly impact, and reshape their future.

The first step in preventing suicide in foster care youth is learning how to identifying youth in danger, and becoming aware and informed of the warning signs. Sadly, many youth in foster care experience a multitude of risk factors that increase their likelihood of engaging in suicidal behavior.

Suicide Risk-Factors Among Youth

  • Mentally ill including substance-abusing parents
  • Domestic violence
  • Social isolation
  • Childhood trauma
  • Repeated, unmitigated trauma
  • Un-treated mental illness and substance abuse (in teens)
  • Abuse and neglect
  • Family conflict and dysfunction
  • Violence and victimization
  • Bullying
  • Poor coping skills
  • Family history of suicide
  • Exposure to suicide and suicide attempt
  • Firearms availability
  • Self-injury and/or prior suicide attempts

To combat these risk factors, caregivers, foster parents, and professionals should work to establish protective factors in at-risk foster and transitional foster youth. A lack of access to help and support further isolates foster youth, and continues to create challenges for the youth’s emotional healing. Through providing these protective factors, and advocating and supporting measures that provide services that build protective factors, families and caregivers can help reduce or mitigate some of the risk factors our foster youth face.

Protective Factors Against Suicide in At-Risk Youth

  • Promote psychological and emotional well-being and health
  • Create family connectedness
  • Create a safe school that promotes school connectedness
  • Build self-esteem
  • Become a caring, and trusting adult
  • Help build academic achievement
  • Create connectedness, support, and open communication with parents (or a trusting adult)
  • Teach coping skills
  • Physical activity and sports
  • Reduce access to alcohol, medications, drugs, and firearms

It is imperative that current and former foster youth receive trauma-focused therapy that teaches the youth positive ways to react to stress and manage emotional and traumatic triggers. As a part of ongoing support and advocating for the foster youth, foster parents can attend mental health visits, and continue to talk with the youth about their positive steps towards healing. This continued support acts as a protective factor in the youth’s life.

Here at Walden, we provide current and transitional youth trauma-informed therapy to help them heal. We holistically engage their caretakers in ongoing support and education to foster healing, and work hard to build a network of caregivers and adults committed to our youth’s success. We encourage you to join us, by helping to spread awareness and supporting our foster youth.

Supporting Foster Youth in Education

As we embark upon a new school year with children and youth eagerly donning new backpacks of their favorite characters and colors, we must take time to consider foster youth and their educational journeys. Studies show that foster youth are at a severe disadvantage when it comes to reaching educational goals and success equal to their peers. Whether it is their high incidence of PTSD due to early childhood trauma, or their lower chances of completing high school and moving on to higher education compared to their peers, our foster children and youth need our help in reaching academic success.

We must make sure foster children and youth do not fall through the gaps and cracks in education by implementing preventative and proactive measures that help our educators, administrators, and the educational paraprofessionals serving our youth. We’d like to share a few time-proven strategies teachers and administrators can implement to help foster children and youth succeed this school year, and beyond.

5 Ways Educators and Administrators Can Support Foster Youth

  1. Understand Their Life. Like people, all children do not have the same life experiences. For children and teens in foster care we must begin by understanding the often disruptive experiences they have endured. Most children in foster care have experienced trauma, including neglect and abuse, and have been taken away from their home because of a lack of safety, and physical and mental abuse. Knowing this helps teachers and administrators better understand a child’s distracted, detached, or even angry reaction towards school or adults.
  2. Know Their History. The first step towards understanding is becoming acquainted with the child’s unique history and background. Do not assume to know why the child was placed in foster care, but instead work hard at learning and understanding the circumstances that led to the child’s placement. This is best accomplished by meeting with the child’s social worker, mental health professional, and foster parent. In this meeting the child’s educational team can learn the specific traumas and ensuing triggers the child is healing from, so they can help support the child’s healing by providing a safe, and welcoming environment.
  3. Advocate for the Child. One of the greatest needs of foster children are advocates to champion their success and continued growth and healing. Having a teacher or administrator work on their behalf as an advocate does a myriad of good in helping the child succeed and rebuild their life. First, educational advocates ensure the best decisions are made regarding the child’s future. Second, when a child sees adults advocating on their behalf it helps them regain trust in adults, something often broken through their traumatic experience. Finally, it is important for the holistic care and success of the child to have adults vested in their interest at all levels of their care.
  4. Foster Consistency and Stability. There are many reasons why foster youth struggle to finish high school at rates equal to their peers, but one of the main reasons is a lack of consistency and stability. Help foster children and youth by helping to removing barriers to regular school attendance, help foster children create a community that will support them, and be one of many relationships that grow with the child as they grow. By providing support with attendance, community, and relationship-building you help will foster children create a new identity built on a supportive community.
  5. Give Them Hope. When a child lacks hope it is hard for them to imagine a future of success. Foster children are often voiceless victims of neglect and abuse that makes them feel powerless over their lives. While they may not be able to change their past, encourage foster youth to see their future is in their hands and within their control. The best way to help foster youth is to mentor them, and help them gain and learn independent life and living skills, as well as encourage them to seek higher education and gain employable skills. For younger foster children, encourage and support their participation in arts, sports, music, and school clubs that will allow them to build meaningful relationship around similar interests with peers, and boost their self-confidence and esteem.

We know all foster children and youth have enormous potential for healing and growth. Their success is guaranteed when they are surrounded by a team of educators and educational leaders who are not only committed to their well-being, but are also equipped with ways to support their growth.

Pets + Youth: The Case for Bringing Pets into Foster Youths’ Lives

Old Yeller. Lassie. Toto. Benji. Pet the Pup. Comet. What do all these pups have in common? They are famous childhood pets from some of our fondest movies, literature, and television shows. The image of a child and dog is a common, popular one, but have you ever wondered why? Recent studies have proven what animal lovers have long known as truth—the unwavering love, companionship, and presence of a pet provides tremendous psychological and physical benefits for children. Here at Walden, we couldn’t think of a better pair than a foster child, former foster youth, or adoptive child and a pet. In fact, children and youth recovering from trauma benefit greatly from emotional support or service animals in their journey towards healing.

We’ve extensively discussed the emotional healing foster and former foster youth must undergo to combat a past of trauma, abuse, abandonment, and/or neglect. One great therapeutic approach to helping children heal is to provide them with emotional support animals. These pets, whether dogs, cats, turtles, or birds, offer support and unwavering love that becomes a lifeline to children recovering from PTSD, anxiety, depression or other emotionally stressful conditions.

How do pets help foster children heal?

Current and former foster youth who have suffered from trauma often have a difficult time building and establishing trust, which often leads to further challenges in developing and maintaining loving, supportive relationships. Their past traumas often lead to difficulties in letting emotional guards down, and an inability to trust unconditional love offered by someone else, especially an adult. As a result, a number of these youths develop anxiety and depression, which adds more layers of stressful conditions to overcome.

With a pet these children are able to experience unconditional love, support, and companionship that allows them to rebuild and regain trust by forming a healthy and loving relationship. This child-pet relationship serves as a foundational learning and healing experience that children can build on and grow from in other relationships.

In addition to allowing foster and former foster youth to experience unconditional love and companionship, pets have been shown to increase oxytocin levels. Oxytocin helps reduce feelings of stress and anxiety by slowing down a person’s heart rate, lowering their blood pressure, and helping to block their production of stress hormones. Youth who have routinely been plagued with incidences of trauma and abuse have often been placed in environments that have increased their fight or flight stress hormones levels, forcing them to continually live with raised heart rates and blood pressure. Essentially, these youths’ bodies have existed for prolonged periods at heightened survival stress levels. Oxytocin helps them experience more feelings of peace and calm, increasing their capacity to feel happiness and joy, and allowing them to reset their bodies’ stress levels.

Experiencing companionship and increased feelings of joy isn’t all pets provide current and former foster youth. Pets also help children work through painful feelings of anger, resentment, unworthiness, apathy, and anxiety. Children who have the opportunity to care for an animal that is vulnerable and dependent on them are given the chance to experience and witness positive emotions and reactions from the animal, as well as view themselves as a caretaker. In a sense, great pets model great behavior to children while also teaching them kindness and service. Instead of anger and rage pets often display love and playfulness to their owner. Resentment is replaced by immense gratitude, as animals are almost always happy to shower affection onto their caretakers. Feelings of unworthiness, apathy, and anxiety are replaced by displays of companionship, feelings of purpose, and increased moods of joy and calmness.

At Walden we champion therapeutic ways to help our children and youth heal. We often state it only takes one adult to change the life of a child forever, but we also know pets and animals can have the same lasting and meaning impact. We look forward to continuing to share relevant ways to incorporate and honor the many ways pets and animals help current and former foster youth heal and recover from trauma, abuse, PTSD, and neglect. Join us in celebrating these meaning child and pet bonds.

To read more about the plight current and former foster youth face in healing, please see our past articles:

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in Foster Youth

The 18th Year: Challenges for Youth Aging Out of Foster Care



The Dog Days of Summer

Boy with dog

Many families with children own a pet. Animals are great for kids—and kids are great for animals. They mutually benefit from having an in-home playmate. But pets can be downright healing for children and youth in foster care.

Removed from their homes due to abuse and neglect, SoCal’s 35,000 foster youth are often recovering from trauma. As a result, trusting people and forming supportive attachments can be especially difficult for children and youth in foster care.

The great news is that research has shown that foster kids who have the opportunity to enjoy the comforting contact and affection of a pet can then more easily form trusting relationships with other people. Forming trusting relationships—a skill we all need for good cognitive health and social well-being—is a key milestone in overcoming the effects of trauma. A good relationship with a pet can also help in developing non-verbal communication, compassion and empathy. For these reasons many foster care and adoptive families consider getting a therapy or emotional supportpet.

So let’s appreciate our animal friends, and remember that there are vulnerable children in need of their love and support.