University of Minnesota research shows correlation between mental health issues, foster care and parental incarceration


Recent research from the University of Minnesota has shown a strong link between youths with mental health issues, and both their experiences with foster care or parental incarceration.

This study was based on data from a 2019 survey. It included 110,000 students in grade 8 through 11 in Minnesota public schools. The results showed that youth who had been in foster care or had a parent in prison reported the most severe mental health symptoms. Many of these youth were of color and lived in rural communities.

The study showed that youth who had been in foster care or had a parent in prison at one point in their lives were more likely to experience anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, and mental health diagnoses.

This study is part of a larger research project that aims to examine subgroups of youth who have experienced parental incarceration. This study focused on people who were involved in foster care and parental incarceration.

Luke Muentner, one the study’s authors, said that it was possible to examine all these cross-sections of experiences and link what they mean for mental health. “We measured mental health across many outcomes. We assessed their anxiety, depression, self-harm behavior, suicide attempt and attempted suicide. Finally, we determined if they had ever been diagnosed with a mental illness and received treatment.

These disparities were found to be significant across race, ethnicity, socioeconomic standing and geographical region. Black, Latino, and Native American youth are more likely to be placed in foster care and parental incarceration than white youth. This study also showed that disparities were more prevalent among youth who had experienced both.

This was true even for children in poverty or who lived in rural Minnesota communities.

Black youth accounted for around 6% of the total survey population. However, nearly 11% of those who were subject to both foster care and parental incarceration were Black. Similar results were seen for Latino students who made up 9% of the total sample, but represented 16% of those who had experienced both.

Only 1% of students were Native Americans, but they made up 11% of those who had experienced both systems. These numbers contrast starkly with those of white youth who made up 71%, but who accounted for 45% among those who have experienced both systems.

“It doesn’t surprise me that these numbers are so high,” Jessica Rogers, executive director of Connections to Independence, said. This local organization offers support for foster youth. “That’s the systemic world we live in, and how it was created.

Muentner stated that youth who have had to deal with both the penal system and the foster system are more likely than those who have been exposed to the penal system.

He stated that even though there are no racial or poverty disparities, and even when you adjust for youth who have experienced one of these systems, those at the crossroads can still suffer the most severe outcomes. It is quite poignant that we have significantly higher chances of experiencing these experiences than peers who have never been exposed to the criminal, legal, or child welfare systems.

Students were asked to share their mental health experiences and any treatment received. Both systems were nearly twice as common in those who had experienced them than the rest of the survey sample.

The full sample had 26% of the respondents reporting anxiety. This compares to 44% who were in foster care and parental incarceration. Similar results were found for depression in the sample. However, that number nearly doubled among those who had experienced both parental incarceration or foster care.

Connections to Independence (C2i), which works with youth aged 14-25, supports both those who are in or have been out of foster care. They offer classes in counseling, case management, and support for workforce development and support.

She said that many mental health problems arise in foster children because of the removal of their home. This is extremely traumatizing for them. “Then, a lot more of our children move from foster home in foster homes, which adds to trauma.”

Rogers stated that foster youth experience PTSD twice as often than veterans.

She said, “When you don’t know if your gonna be in the same home, you don’t know what’s happening with your family and with your siblings. There’s gonna a very high degree of anxiety.”

Youth at C2i experienced increased anxiety and depression during the pandemic. Rogers stated that in her 14 years of service to the organization, there had been one suicide attempt. There were four suicide attempts in the first year of COVID.

Rogers stated that there are some young people in our organization who don’t attend our group sessions or participate in our activities because it’s too overwhelming. Or they will be triggered by certain behaviors.

What are the findings?

Muentner stated that the significant differences and gaps in the numbers of youth who have experienced these systems tell a lot about society.

Muentner stated that Muentner believes it speaks volumes about systematic racism and the disproportionate policing of both the criminal legal system as well as the child welfare system. This just shows how families of color, those in poverty, and those living in less well-off communities are subject to systematic surveillance at an disproportionate rate. This makes them more susceptible to being exposed to each system and can lead to adverse health outcomes.

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