Foster Children and Adoption

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A review of the literature reveals academic achievement success and failure rates within the foster care population have been studied; as have social behaviors in this particular population. In addition, literature review also reveals a narrow or short research history on the idea of sports impacting foster children’s return to normalcy. This literature review will provide a brief history of youth in foster care, highlight recent milestones in research, briefly summarize research of this population, and point to sports participation as a strategy intended to improve normalcy for students in foster care.

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The United States enacted the foster care system for children in 1853 (Herman, 2019). Presently, all 50 states have foster care programs, as well as private agencies that include Faithbridge Foster Care and Georgia Agape. Children are placed in foster care for an average of 14 months (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2017) . The national total for children placed in foster care programs could be as high as 437,465 (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2017). According to Child Welfare Information Gateway (2017), 87% of foster children spend from one month to 4 years in a foster care setting before arriving at the age of majority which could be 18 or 21, depending on the state. No current study has investigated the connection between foster children and their participation in high school competitive sports programs. This study proposes to meet that gap in the current understanding of foster children and their schooling successes.

Federal and State Level Legislation for Foster Children

According to The Adoption History Project (2019), foster care has a long history dating back to 1851. The first well-known foster family care program in the United States was established by Charles Loring Brace in 1853 (Herman, 2019). This program was called The Placing Out System of the New York Children’s Aid Society (Herman, 2019). The placing programs goal was to dispose of vagrant children using orphan trains. Their final placement, the American West. (Herman, 2019). In 1898, The Catholic Home Bureau organized a society called the St. Vincent De Paul Society. This organization was the first to place children in homes versus orphanages, a model still followed today. In 1909, the First White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children focused on harmful effects of institutionalizing dependent and neglected children (Herman, 2019). Results of this conference included promotion of child well-being within families, establishing a foster care program, expanding adoption agencies, and providing pensions for mothers to keep poor families together (Herman, 2019).

Early adoption field studies gathered basic information from 1919-1929. The first major outcome study (1924), How Foster Children Turn Out based on work from the New York State Charities Aid Association. This organization was one of the first to establish a child-placement program protocols (Herman, 2019).

In 1974, the Child Abuse and Prevention Act (CAPTA) was passed by the federal government, requiring all states to establish child abuse reporting procedures and investigation systems, including state implementation of mandatory reporting laws (Herman, 2019). This was followed by the Purpose and Provisions of the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 (Pub. L. 96-272) which established a wide range of policies to assist states in protection and caring for abused and neglected children (Herman, 2019). In essence, Pub.L. 96-272 advanced the notion of permanency planning to keep foster children from getting lost in the system and remaining in foster care indefinitely. This legislation required states to make “”reasonable efforts”” to prevent children from entering foster care and to reunify children who were placed. The legal mandate was established for the best interests of the child. The guidelines were established regarding reunification with parents, placement with kin, or adoption as desirable goals in that order (Shkolnik, 2011).

In addition to child welfare legislation, other national legislation was passed in the areas of health and human services which had the potential to affect the child welfare system. Child mental health programs funded by the National Institute on Mental Health. Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (OBRA) 1984 made limited national funding available to provide grants to states to develop services for Seriously Emotionally Disturbed (SED) children (Shkolnik, 2011). This mental health program is known as the Child and Adolescent Service System Program (Shkolnik, 2011).

The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (P.L. 105-89) was signed into law on November 19, 1997 by President Clinton. The law was established to improve the safety of foster and orphan children, to promote adoption and other permanent homes for children who need them, and to support families (Herman, 2019). This new law made sweeping changes and clarifications in a wide range of policies established under the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act (P.L. 96-272). This major federal law, enacted in 1980, assisted the states in protecting and caring for abused and neglected children. Former federal law required a dispositional hearing within 18 months of a child’s placement into out-of-home care. The new law established a permanency planning legal hearing for children in foster care that occurs within 12 months of a child’s entry into care (Herman, 2019). At the hearing, there must be a legal determination of if and when a child will be returned home, placed for adoption. Additionally, a termination of parental rights petition must be filed, referred for legal guardianship, or another planned permanent living arrangement if the other options are not appropriate (Shkolnik, 2011).

Milestones in Research

The Annie E. Casey Foundation (2015) has been working with young people with foster care experience, seeking to help identify what they need to transition successfully to adulthood since 2005. When surveyed, young foster children have emphasized that their foster care experiences were far from normal (The Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2015). Respondents reported they needed what their age peers (not in foster care) typically have: parents to love and guide them; close relationships with their siblings, extended family members and other committed adults; a sense of identity and belonging; and daily experiences such as extracurricular activities, sleepovers and time just hanging out with friends (The Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2015).

Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act of 2014 is a federal law that requires states to establish a “reasonable and prudent parent” standard in order to give foster parents greater flexibility to allow their foster children to participate in activities such as school extracurricular activities, field trips, sleepovers, and sporting events. These sorts of activities are important for childhood and adolescent growth and have long been difficult and oftentimes impossible for foster youth to gain access to (Pokempner, Mordecai, Rosado & Subrahmanyam, 2015). Due to the mandate that all adults involved with foster children must have passed complete background checks, even a babysitter was impossible to hire, unless cleared by the FBI. The legal intent may have been correct, but the practical application of the law restricted foster children from many volunteer-staffed sports programs.

One highlight of the law is to promote an opportunity for foster youth to engage in developmentally-appropriate activities like sports. A second emphasis of the law is to mandate judicial review of normalcy for youth who have a permanency goal of Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement (The Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2015). At each permanency review hearing, the judge must ensure the child’s case plan specifies the steps the agency is taking to ensure reasonable and prudent parent standards are being followed, and that the child has regular, ongoing opportunities to engage in age-appropriate activities (Pokempner, Mordecai, Rosado & Subrahmanyam, 2015).

The McKinney-Vento Education for Homeless Children and Youth (EHCY) program is designed to address the problems that homeless children and youth face in enrolling, attending, and succeeding in school. Under this program, the Georgia Department of Education (GaDOE) must ensure that each homeless child and youth has equal access to the same free and appropriate public education, including preschool, as other students (GaDOE, 2016). According to GaDOE (2016) homeless children and youth must have access to the educational and other services that they need to enable them to meet the same challenging state academic achievement standards to which all students are held. In addition, homeless students may not be separated from the mainstream school environment. The law actually covers all the associated costs for participating in community or extra-curricular schools sports programs – once an imposing wall of impossibility for children in foster settings. For example, sports physicals, sports equipment, transportation to and from events, and any travel costs for extended season contest and tournaments. Thus, foster children were given the legal right to be kids and have fun with school sports -like all the other kids in school.

Review of the Research Literature – The Problem of Being a Foster Child

Adolescents in foster care understand why they entered care. They are usually old enough to make sense of the circumstances that prevented them from remaining in their homes. But what may be hardest for these young people to understand is the lack of everyday experiences and relationships with families and friends readily available to peers who are not in foster care (Lickteig, 2019). Leading authorities agree, these young people deserve normal and healthy experiences: positive relationships, sports, school clubs, etc. Liability concerns, consents, and other barriers keep these milestones out of the hands of these young people. Normal experiences they need to become successful adults (The Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2015).

Foster Youth are seeking normalcy, control, a way to remain loyal to their biological family, stability, structure and routine. Due to the past experiences they have endured, Foster children have an amplified need for control (Lickteig, 2019). These children have been removed from their homes, separated from their siblings, and placed in various homes across the state. All events that are completely out of their control. In order to “regain” control, foster youth are often defiant with authorities ( i.e.. coaches) , refusing to comply to the most expected behavioral norms (Lickteig, 2019).

Foster children often struggle with how to remain loyal to both their foster family and their biological family (Lickteig, 2019). While in foster care, many young people long to maintain ties with their birth families and want to experience some semblance of family life. For some, it is as simple as reconnecting with their birth families and having supervised visitation. For others, it may mean a deep longing to be part of a new stable family. Many foster programs stress the importance of maintaining sibling relationships and being able to engage in normal family activities with siblings even when not placed together (Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, 2015).

Foster children are removed from unstable and volatile homes. Their school setting may be no different. As pointed out in previously , according to the Casey Family Foundation (2017), 75% of youth will change schools after entering care,. As a result, less than 50 percent of youth involved in foster care exit the foster care system with a high school diploma or high school equivalent. This same foundation found only 30 % of foster care youth graduate high school. The factors leading to their entry into foster care, along with what they must endure while in the custody of the state, increases the failure rate of competing in sports or completing a high school diploma (The Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2015).

Classroom, school, and sports routines can be effective opportunities for promoting school success for foster students. Foster children lack familiar settings and routines that provide structure (Lickteig, 2019). These safe settings give older youth opportunities to practice adult skills such as time management, driving and maintaining a network of friends, school, social, and team relationships. Young people need consistency to master life skills and to develop structured routines (The Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2015).

Childhood maltreatment is often associated with youth’s ability to successfully function in school. Youth with a history of maltreatment often receive lower grades and scores on tests of academic achievement, as well as demonstrate more negative behaviors in school, as compared to non-maltreated youth (McGuire & Jackson, 2018). Thirty percent of foster youth perform below grade level, are more likely to need special education services, and may be held back at a higher rate than their peers (Shkolnik, 2011).

A significant problem foster youth have is frequent school changes. Each time a foster youth changes homes they may also change schools. Adapting to a new peer group, new classes, and new teachers may prove impossible for children in foster care. These changes may increase school behavior problems (Shkolnik, 2011). In addition, several studies have demonstrated that school mobility is a significant risk factor for student dropout (Shkolnik, 2011). Sadly, as a result of all the above factors, foster children have an increased risk of mental health disorders. The majority of foster youth with mental health problems do not receive mental health services (Klitsch, 2010).

Potential Opportunity for Foster Children – Impact of sports

Research indicates better self-reported grades and greater academic aspirations associated with sports participation (Lickteig, 2019). Participation in extracurricular activities was associated with graduating from high school with a diploma, but not starting college by age 19 (Lickteig, 2019). Consistent with provisions of the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act of 2014, study results suggest extracurricular participation is a normative aspect of the developmental experience of foster youth, and are important for their educational well-being (White, Scott, &Munson, 2018).

Extracurricular activities address all three areas of concern for foster youth discussed above, academic achievement, behavioral problems, and normalcy. The research has shown that structure is very important (Klitsch, 2010). High school sports are structured, voluntary, after-school activities rather than the informal, unstructured activities that youth may be involved in with their peers after school (Klitsch, 2010). Secondary sports programs provide a unique opportunity for students to connect to their school community, as well as form strong bonds with coaches and team peers. In addition, many school-based extracurricular activities have a minimum grade point average (GPA) requirement thus encouraging foster students to do better in the classroom studies (Klitsch, 2010).


Despite the popularity of sports, there exists only little empirical evidence on the relation between sports participation and children’s development. Prior research, mostly stemming from pediatrics or psychology, has devoted much attention to the role of sports for children’s physical and mental health (Strong, Malina, Blimkie, Daniels, Dishman, Gutin, et al, 2005). Findings suggest that efforts to make extracurricular participation a normative aspect of foster youth’s developmental experience are important (The Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2015).

According to National Conference of State Legislators (2019), “ For youth who have experienced trauma due to maltreatment, removal from home and foster care, healthy development of the brain and the normal pruning and strengthening of neural synapses can be interrupted. Providing positive, enriching experiences and stable, nurturing relationships can repair damage and build healthy new neural connections in the brain”( p.1)

Participation in secondary sports may also open career roads for foster children to investigate the wide-ranging careers in sports education, business, management and law (Klitsch, 2010). Policies that close the door to career investigation for foster children may be a life-limiting factor to a population that is certainly at-risk of short-sighted goal-setting.

In conclusion, studies suggest sports participation enhances the school experience for foster children and often has positive effects on attendance, motivation, academic achievement, and behavior of youth in foster care. Despite this fact, few states have laws in place to directly support foster youth participation in athletics. In addition, there are few existing school district policies guiding stakeholders involved with foster youth on how to support and encourage their involvement in sports and other activities. Foster youth need emotional and practical support from their support systems, flexibility on the part of teachers and coaches, and state laws that protect their right to fully participate in school-related activities (Klitsch, 2010).


  1. Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2017). Foster care statistics 2016. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau. Retrieved March 25, 2019 from
  2. Georgia Department of Education, Office of School Improvement. (June 2016). Georgia’s McKinney-Vento program: 2015 data report. Atlanta, GA: Georgia Department of Education. Retrieved March, 16, 2019 from
  3. Juvenile Law Center. (2015). Promoting normalcy for youth and children in foster care. Retrieved March 15, 2019, from resources/publications/promoting-normalcy- children-and-youth-foster-care
  4. Herman, E. (2019).The adoption history project. Retrieved March, 15, 2019 from
  5. Klitsch, S. (2010). Beyond the basics: Extracurricular activities can benefit foster youth. National Center for Youth Law. Retrieved from
  6. McGuire, A., & Jackson, Y. (2018). Dimensions of maltreatment and academic outcomes for youth in foster care. Child Abuse & Neglect, 84, 82–94. Retrieved March 15, 2019 from
  7. National Conference of State Legislatures. (2019). Supporting older youth in foster care. Retrieved March 25, 2019 from
  8. Pokempner, J., Mordecai, K., Rosado, L., & Subrahmanyan, D. (2015). Promoting normalcy for children and youth in foster care. Retrieved March 15, 2019 from
  9. Shkolnik, A. (2011) A selected list of milestones in child welfare services. Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare University of Minnesota School of Social Work
  10. Strong W., Malina R., Blimkie C., Daniels S., Dishman R., Gutin B, et al. (2005). Evidence Based Physical Activity for School-Age Youth. The Journal of Pediatrics, 146 (6): 732–737.
  11. The Annie E. Casey Foundation. (2015). What young people need to thrive. Retrieved March 14, 2019 from
  12. White, T., Jr Scott, L. D., & Munson, M. R. (2018). Extracurricular activity participation and educational outcomes among older youth transitioning from foster care. Children & Youth Services Review, 85, 1–8.
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Foster Children and Adoption. (2019, Mar 20). Retrieved from