Psychologists have long noted that kids are far more likely to be abused and neglected at the hands of caregivers they have no biological relationship with than they are at the hands of biological caretakers. Out-of-family caretakers simply don’t have the same attachment or sense of genetic ties/obligations that come from being family. As such, they tend to be more abusive. In fact, children living in households with unrelated adults are nearly fifty-times as likely to die of inflicted injuries as those in their biological environments. (Crary, 11-18-07)
Volumes upon volumes exist outlining the abuse and neglect that takes place in foster care. (Bernstein, 2001; McDonald et al., 1993; Wexler, 1990) This includes things like verbal abuse, sexual abuse, rape, sexual slavery, neglect, locking kids in closets, burning them with cigarettes, beating them with baseball bats, and a whole slew of things that are hard to imagine anyone doing, yet alone those who are supposed to be the child’s saviors. Courter (2008) describes being abused and beaten at the hands of several foster parents as she was shuffled in and out of 14 chaotic homes. To be abused once might be a fluke. But to be repeatedly abused and neglected in different homes, as is not at all an uncommon story reported by foster children, indicates systematic maltreatment. Oddly enough, reports of broken bones increase once a child enters the system. (Doyle, 2007A)
Aside from the abuse and neglect that takes place at the hands of foster care providers, they are usually less equipped households to begin with. One study found that children in foster care live in poorer, more crowded homes headed by less educated parents than kids in other families. (Koch, 5-16-08) They are often filled with many more kids, including a couple other foster kids. Foster kids usually mean behavioral problems and impermanency, which have the potential to harm the new child in both ways. If you take a child away from one neglectful mother and put her in a home with 6, 7, 8 kids, several with behavioral problems and two parents (at least one working), you often end up with just as neglectful of an environment as that one mother with her one child on account of simple division.
Many foster parents operate their care as a means of income, and that’s all the child is to them; a check from the state. They handle children with serious disturbances on a routine basis, not only without extensive training but with less education than the rest of us. This can affect not only them as parents, but their own children. Moods and behaviors are contagious, and can tilt the whole household in the wrong direction if they don’t get a handle on the kids with disturbances they take in. Care is impermanent. Children are shuffled in and out of homes on a regular basis, traded like stocks, and so attachment is set up to fail before it even begins. This keeps caregivers distant and disinterested in working on what it takes to form a strong bond. Even if they do and the child is moved again or adopted, that’s almost worse because it results in yet another catastrophic break in attachment.
The bottom line is that trying to plug a child into a family where there are no genetic ties, no vested interest in the child, no family obligations, and in crowded households with less capable, less educated parents caring for other unruly children, brings results that are less than desired. In the case of foster care, a secondary caretaker means secondary treatment. We should end by saying there are some wonderful foster parents out there who treat every child as their own and take exceptional care of them. The problem is that these homes are the rare exception, the gem in the haystack, not the norm.