Youth within the Foster Care System Don’t Have “Families”

Families are the cornerstone of America’s social fabric. They are also the foundation for human development. Maslow’s hierarchy is a theory that people have a five-tier hierarchical set of needs: physiological needs, a need for safety, a need for love and belonging, a need for self-esteem, and a need for self-actualization. The family as a unit tends to create positive outcomes in almost all aspects of a child’s life because a family typically provides stability, love, comfort, support, protection, and a sense of belonging, along with so many other basic necessities that are essential to the overall development of a child. Although many children, especially children who are involved with the foster care system, emerge from what society considers “chaotic” families, those families still provide some sense of comfort and foundation for the child

Because children in the foster care system live apart from their biological parents, there is often times a disruption in their development of attachment and sense of belonging to their biological family, which occurs while they are trying to form new relations with their caregivers in the foster care system. If a child is provided with a secure and nurturing environment, he or she is capable of making positive developments; however, if the child is unable to find that security and comfort in at least one of their adult caregivers, he or she may begin to seek out and form attachments to undesirable social influences, such as gangs.

Attachment theory focuses on how a child’s early relationships impact his or her development and capacity to form later relationships. According to the Journal of American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, attachment refers to a “child’s tendency to seek comfort, support, nurturance, and protection selectively from at least one adult caregiver.” The journal further explains that, “Young children’s attachments may be qualitatively different with different caregivers, depending on the kinds of experiences that they have with those caregivers.” For example, when caregivers are nurturing, sensitive, and committed to a child, that child is most likely to form secure and healthy attachments. In contrast, if a caregiver acts unemotional, unsupportive, and uninterested towards a child, that child likely will form unsafe and unhealthy attachments. It is important to note that the attachment theory is continuously evolving as new research is conducted and the importance of the child’s independent involvement in life experiences beyond the home, such as those at school and with peers or members of the community, is considered. For purposes of my blog series, the importance of attachment theory is it explains that through experiences with caregivers, young children develop expectations about the dependability of attachment figures to provide the components of Maslow’s hierarchy, and if they fail to get them from their caregivers, they will seek them elsewhere.

In this post I will use this psychological framework of Maslow’s hierarchy and attachment to explore why youth in foster care might join gangs. My theory is that, given the disruption to the family and the important psychological needs that are going unmet, gangs can serve as substitute “families” for children in the foster care system.

Children in the Foster Care System

It is all too common that youth in the foster care system endure multiple traumas and disruptive events during their childhoods, including abuse, neglect, multiple foster home placements, lack of continuity in education, as well as many lost relationships, including close relationships with friends, families, and siblings. These instabilities within their lives impact the emotional and social development of youth in the foster care system as they get older and contribute to the reason many of them choose to participate in gangs.

People who typically join gangs are teenagers. Teenagers within the foster care system are a subpopulation who are specifically susceptible to joining gangs. In this section I will focus on the particular instability that teenaged children in foster care face. Despite the fact that children in the foster care system tend to have bad outcomes as a whole, teenage kids within the foster care system who join gangs have especially bad outcomes. I will be arguing that gangs act as a substitute family. This section will try to define what kinds of family support is missing from the lives of teenage kids within the foster care system. 

According to recent data, there are approximately 437,500 children in America’s foster care system who face a disproportionate risk of being incarcerated. Nearly a quarter of these children in foster care are age 14 or older. While the percentage of older youth placed with kin has risen, from 14 percent in 2007 to 18 percent in 2017, only 58 percent of older youth in child welfare systems lived in families in 2017, compared with 95 percent of children 12 and under. This is disheartening in light of the fact that housing support is critical for former foster youth, as over one fifth face homelessness after age 18. 

SOURCE: Child Trends’ analysis of 2017 Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System data.

Why is the foster care system less likely to place teenagers in families? And where are older youth going if they are not being placed in families? Teenagers are more likely than younger children to be sent to group placements. This begs the question of why does being sent to a group placement even matter in terms of achieving positive outcomes for the teenaged youth? 

Although views about group care vary, below is testimony from one individual who was previously involved in a group placement while in the foster care system:

Like I’ve said, I always wanted that home structure…I feel like group homes and stuff like that, it feels like an orphanage to me. Like they don’t want me…I want to be with a family…I want to go out with a family. Do regular thingsthat you see everybody else doing. So, the group home thing just always made me feel like I wasn’t wanted.

I felt more like a product than a person. It’s like, ‘fill up the beds.’ I look now and remember interactions and the kids were like treated not as a person but almost like a product. Or just not there…I just feel like it was kind of bureaucratic. Like robotic. I don’t know how to explain it. Everything is done systematically.

[At my group home], they teach you a lot but they teach you a lot of bad things and good things. I learned a lot of awful stuff there that I wouldn’t have wanted to learn…It was a very weird and mixed experience

Just the whole group home thing, I think it tends to make foster kids meanand being that I had a lot of friends that was in it. It just tends to make them wild. 

(emphasis added).

            This account demonstrates the truth behind Maslow’s hierarchy and attachment theory, which is the importance of a child having a “family” so that he or she feels a sense of belonging and stability – a feeling of being “wanted” somewhere so they do not have to attempt to seek that elsewhere. Young people who spend most of their time in group placements, or whose last placement was in a group setting, are less likely to ever become part of a permanent familyJarel Melendez, a youth advocate at Lawyers for Children who also grew up in foster care, explains that foster youth in government-run group homes are particularly at risk of having police called on them by staff. According to advocates like Jarel, behaviors for which group home staff call police include verbal arguments, physical fights, throwing things, running away, smoking marijuana or even masturbation – all of which can be considered normal teenage behavior that typically does not result in police intervention.This lack of unconditional love, support, and stability in the foster care system leads to a greater likelihood of arrest, homelessness, unemployment, early parenthood, and gang involvement. The problem is so severe that one quarter of foster care alumni will become involved with the criminal justice system within two years of leaving group care.

Because many of these children are deprived of the stability, love, comfort, support, protection, sense of belonging, and other basic necessities that a traditional family typically provides, it makes sense that they turn to gangs. Another young person who was previously in a group home placement while in the foster care system explained that:

What’s happened in foster care [is that it] has become very gang infested…Because these kids are looking for the assimilation of the family thing…And what these gangs are doing are assimilating themselves to be family…Not everybody joins these gangs. Don’t get me wrong. But a majority of [residents] do. If you go into any group homes today, it’s most likely I would say 50% of the group home is gang-related.

They got a lot of gang-related stuff – Blood, Crip…a lot of that is in group homes nowadays where a lot of kids don’t feel safe. Especially young kids…I see some of the kids up there, they bully the kids. And sometimes the staff would know, and they wouldn’t care. A kid [might] run to the staff and the staff [would] be like, ‘handle your own business.’ You know that a kid can’t handle his business.

The gang activity [in the group home] was ridiculous…Once you are in the gang, it’s hard to get outand they want you in a gang because you are smart or because you know how to fight…[If] you don’t want in it, they will pound you and pound you and pound you until you come in. That happened to me… 

(emphasis added).

            This testimony from another child who was previously in the foster care system shows the lack of safety and security that children often face when placed in group homes. Even when these children have no desire whatsoever to join a gang, they often feel like they have no choice because no one is there to protect them from the bullying that they are subjected to should they refuse to join. It is important to recognize that children in the foster care system do not just need a bed to sleep in and “resources” made available to them while they are in the care of the child welfare system, they still need the fundamentals such stability, love, comfort, support, protection, and a sense of belonging, that are essential to their development.

It is also important to note how race plays a factor into whether children are placed into family settings. Between 2007 and 2017, the proportion of white kids placed in families grew by 6 percentage points while kids of color experienced smaller gains — between 1% and 5%.

SOURCE: Child Trends’ analysis of 2007 and 2017 Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System data.

This trend of the child welfare system being less likely to place black children in family settings lends to the idea that youth of color might have higher gang involvement. Studies also show that black youthLGBTQ youth and those with mental illnesses are more likely to be in foster care, and discrimination in the system exacerbates these populations’ already disproportionate vulnerabilities to criminalization. Depriving children, particularly children from minority groups, within the foster care system the opportunity to live in family settings likely contributes to their longing for a sense of belonging, protection, acceptance, and identity – something that most gangs appear to provide.

The Appeal of Gangs

According to Christina Wilson Remlin, lead counsel for Children’s Rights, an organization that works to change the child welfare system through legal action, “As soon as kids get labeled [as ‘bad’ kids] it’s really hard for them to get unlabeled.”  She goes on to explain that, “For teenagers in foster care, they’re already a group of kids that our society looks down on and thinks is troubled, so having a juvenile justice charge only exacerbates all those existing vulnerabilities.”This is likely one reason youth in the foster care system end up joining gangs at high rates. The threat of gangs can be so insidious to children in the foster care system precisely because of the sense of security and family gangs appear to provide.  Although there is no widely or universally accepted definition of a “gang” among law enforcement agencies — see NGC’s compilation of gang-related legislation— the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (“AACAP”) defines gangs as groups of children, adolescents, and young adults who share a common identity and are involved in wrongful or delinquent activities. The AACAP explains that there are many motivating factors as to why a child would want to join a gang: to gain a sense of connection, to define a new sense of who they are, to conform to peer pressure, to protect themselves and their families, to make money, and so on. The above-mentioned definition of a gang and the motivating factors as to why gangs look appealing from the outside looking in sheds much light as to why much of the youth in the foster care system “choose” to become involved in gangs despite the dangers they entail.

According to a report by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (“OJJDP”), there are several risk factors that can predict an increased risk for gang involvement.  These risk factors cover the 5 areas of social development: family, peer group, school, individual characteristics and community conditions. This means that there are indicators of risk in every environment a foster child occupies.Though there are 89 total risk factors provided, it is not necessary for all to be present in a child for the threat of gang involvement to be very real. The main risk factors to be concerned about include: family poverty, broken homes or changes in caretakers, poor supervision, victimization and exposure to violence, parental substance abuse, and early and persistent noncompliant behavior. In other words, youth in the foster care system are more susceptible to gang involvement because they likely are experiencing the above-mentioned risk factors.In fact, the OJJDP has found that the more risk factors present in a child’s life, the greater the likelihood of that child becoming involved in a gang.  

So, with this in mind, why are gangs appealing to youth in the foster care system? Existing theories about why youth in the foster care system join gangs or engage in criminal behavior are that they are bad apples, that they have normalized antisocial behavior, that they have economic instability and few job prospects, personal security, and so on;however, it is equally important, if not more important, to consider what do youth in foster care system lack in terms of reliability, attachment, security, love, and a sense of belonging? What is missing from these kids’ lives?Or better yet, what do gangs provide to children that their foster families may be lacking? In my next post, I will explore the origins of family references within gang names, and whether these familial ties that gangs seem to be promoting influence whether youth in the foster care system decide to join.