Substance Abuse Risks and Prevention for Foster Care Youth

In the United States there is a strong link between youth foster care placement and substance abuse. Substance abuse is a contributing factor in approximately 75 percent of all foster care placements, often playing a key role in child neglect or abuse. According to The Center of Applied Research Solutions, alcohol and drug addiction affects 40 to 80 percent of all families in the child welfare system. Additionally, 34 percent of youth in foster care abuse drugs or alcohol, 12 percent higher than youth not in foster care.

drug rehab articleIdentifying the substance abuse risk factors foster youth face can be useful to avoid the development of a drug or alcohol addiction. Foster youth substance abuse prevention strategies and programs can also greatly increase the odds of drug and alcohol abstinence among children in foster care.  

Risk Factors

Foster youth face a number of substance abuse risk factors that nonfoster youth do not, as well general substance abuse risks factors. These risks include:

  • Family History of Substance Abuse- genetics play a key role in an individual’s likelihood to use drugs or alcohol. Parental substance abuse during the prenatal or child rearing period can have a profound impact on a child’s likelihood to develop a substance use disorder and often plays a role in removing a child from a parent, resulting in foster care placement.
  • Emotional Distress- maltreatment of children often leaves severe emotional scars that affect a child’s development and likelihood of using drugs or alcohol. Often plagued by intense negative emotions or memories, many foster youth turn to substances to cope with their feelings. Using substances as a way to cope with life’s difficulties leaves foster youth at greater risks of being victimized, developing an addiction, suffering poor health, and developing a co-occurring disorder. According to a survey cited in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, nearly 50 percent of foster youth suffer from a mental health disorder, with substance abuse being a major contributor to this number.
  • Inconsistent Living and School Environment- foster youth frequently move between homes or schools as a result of their situation. The ever-changing environments can be a great burden for foster youth, who often do not benefit from a stable home or social relationships. Inconsistent living and school settings can affect foster youth emotionally, cognitively and physically and may result in poor academic performance or behavioral issues. According to the California Foster Youth Education Task Force, the average youth in foster care falls three to six months behind their classmates every time they change schools. Additionally, foster youth are more likely to be moved to continuation or community day school for poor academics or behavior, making them more likely to use drugs or alcohol, according to the California Healthy Kids Survey aggregate data for 2005 to 2007.
  • Leaving Foster Care- of the 500,000 children in foster care, about 24,000 turn 18 and leave the home to live independently. These adolescents face the challenge of securing a stable and healthy living environment but are often unprepared to take on the obligations needed to do so. Many end up homeless, at greater risk of abusing substances than foster youth in shelters or those with stable living situations, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Preventing Foster Youth Substance Abuse

For individuals who care for foster youth or programs that assist youth in foster care, there are prevention strategies that can decrease the odds of substance abuse.

  • Create Consistency: Consistency is rare in the lives of children in foster care, and creating a stable environment or relationship can have a lasting positive impact. Additionally, relationships with proper role models that provide support and guidance can greatly reduce the risks of substance abuse among foster youth.
  • Proper Training and Support: Many foster children have difficulty discussing their feelings, trusting others, and letting their guard down. Those caring for or assisting foster youth require specific and comprehensive training to ensure they handle the situation properly. Overall, understanding and compassion are critical traits for breaking down the psychological barriers or defenses of those in foster care.
  • Sympathy: Changing family dynamics, school, and relationships can cause a great deal of stress for youth in foster care and can take a large emotional toll. Foster children often face difficult realities with their parents or guardians and usually have no support system or trusted adult to turn to. Those providing care and help to foster youth should approach each child kindly, making sure their services provide a welcoming and respectful atmosphere.
  • Avoid Stereotypes and Stigmas: For those in foster care, every situation is different. They often come from nontraditional families or living environments. Those providing care or case management services to foster youth should first learn about the child before making any judgements about their needs or actions. Avoid using stereotypical language. When speaking to a foster child, do not assume anything about their family or living situation. Remember, children in foster care are undoubtedly facing difficult circumstances, and more than anything, they need support and respect from those assisting them.

About the Author: Trey Dyer is a writer for Trey hopes that through his writing, he can assist individuals and families struggling with drug or alcohol abuse find the treatment they need to reach recovery. When Trey is not writing, he is either fishing, playing soccer or barbequing. 


Basca, B. & North, D. (2009). Preventing Substance Abuse Among Youth in Foster Care. Retrieved from

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. (2007, February). Substance Use in Maltreated Youth: Findings From the National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being. Retrieved from

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. (2014, October). Parental Substance Use and the Child Welfare System. Retrieved from

Trey Dyer

Trey Dyer is a writer and content creator for Using his writing and drawing from his own personal experience with drug addiction in his family, Trey hopes he can help provide the resources people struggling with drug addiction need to get clean.

Trey started his writing career as a sports writer, covering high school sports in the Washington, D.C. area while in college. After earning a degree in journalism from American University, Trey worked covering college football and managing sports events for a number of sports organizations before making the move to

When Trey is not writing, he can be found fly fishing the saltwater flats and nearshore waters of Florida, enjoying the outdoors and rooting for the Florida Gators football team.

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