When I was aging out of the foster care system, I remember hearing that kids like me were more susceptible to every possible bad outcome a young person could experience, including unwanted pregnancies, homelessness, domestic violence, incarceration, and substance abuse. What I didn’t understand at the time is that many foster care alumni are practically fed into all of these nightmare situations, especially addiction, by the very nature of their childhoods.


To understand foster care alumni, you have to understand their trauma. Young people in the foster care system are even more likely than combat veterans to struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other effects of trauma. Types of trauma commonly experienced by foster youth include:

  • Physical, sexual, or emotional abuse
  • Neglect
  • Witnessing domestic violence
  • Loss of a caregiver
  • Caregiver incarceration
  • Having a mentally ill caregiver

Trauma is a huge risk for addiction, according to the ACEs Study by Kaiser Permanente hospital. People with four or more adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are likely to:

  • start drinking alcohol at an earlier age
  • use tobacco
  • binge drink
  • have two to four times as much tendency to abuse illicit substances
  • experience numerous relapses


According to the Administration for Children and Families, nearly 97,000 children were removed from their family homes and placed in foster care because one or more of their parents struggled with substance abuse. Citing numerous studies, some of which included identical and fraternal twins, siblings, and adoptees, the National Institute on Drug Abuse indicated that our genetics can influence how many of what types of receptors we have in our brains, which can then influence our risk for developing certain addictions. Because so many foster care alumni come from parents with substance use issues, there is a chance that they have inherited a predisposition toward addiction. By simply understanding how addiction preys upon families, a foster care alum can improve their chances of living a life free from addiction.


One of the quickest ways to feed an addiction is to isolate people. It’s one of the cardinal rules of recovery to not allow oneself to get too lonely. As described by a former foster child, foster care is an incredibly isolating experience Often, aging out of the system can be equally lonely and disconnected.

Not only does isolation increase the risk of a foster care alum developing substance use issues, but it also increases their risk for becoming a victim of human trafficking, homelessness, food insecurity, and unemployment. These various negative outcomes make it even harder to enter recovery.

Bad Influences

Most foster and adopted youth do eventually seek out their birth families. Even if foster youth find love and support in their placements, schools, and communities, they may still return to their families of origin; the upside is that they have a way out if things go wrong. Therefore, it is especially important for foster youth and young adults who were formerly in foster care to build up their support networks so that they have people to turn to when life becomes challenging.

If young people have no choice but to return to their biological families, they may find that the struggles that resulted in their removal from that home are still present. Because they no longer have options for escape, they may fall into the same patterns as their parents and others around them.

Risky Behaviors

According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, foster children are more likely than non-foster youth to engage in some behaviors that increase their risk of developing substance abuse disorder:

  • earlier age of first substance use
  • higher rates of substance use during adolescence
  • higher lifetime use rates for alcohol and other drugs

Co-occurring Conditions

Foster youth are also more likely than their peers to have co-occurring diagnoses, often exhibiting substance abuse along with a mental health condition, which can make recovery more complex and addiction more likely.

Getting Help

As with any other person struggling with substance abuse, foster youth and foster care alumni should be assessed before they can receive treatment. Foster youth generally have access to government-funded health insurance while in foster care and may maintain eligibility for this insurance for several years after leaving foster care. It may be possible for young people from foster care to utilize this insurance to pay for substance abuse treatment.

Signs of Substance Abuse

Foster parents, social workers, and other adults involved in the lives of foster youth and alumni should look for the same indicators in fostered youth as they would in any other person they suspect is misusing substances:

  • Unexplained changes in behavior
  • Sudden change in friends
  • Neglecting hygiene tasks
  • Decreased scholastic performance
  • Loss of interest in hobbies
  • Changes in appetite or sleep

We Can Help

If you think you or a loved one might be suffering from addiction, please reach out to Safe Harbor Recovery Center for help. We will work with you to assess your situation and provide an individualized plan of care. We work with many clients who have co-occurring disorders and who have experienced trauma, whether from foster care or other sources. Recovery is possible, and we can help you begin your journey to a healthier, happier life.

Looking for co-occurring disorder treatment in Virginia? For more information about programs at Safe Harbor Recovery Center, contact us at (888) 932-2304. We are ready to help you make a new beginning.