Medical Misdiagnosis And The Foster Care System: They’re More Common Than You Think

In May 2015, Lorina Troy experienced one of the most devastating events a parent can go through: her children were removed from their home and placed in foster care. Lorina had two sons, one four years old and one five months old. The five-month-old, JJ, had been having issues with vomiting a lot and had a somewhat enlarged head. This eventually led to a misdiagnosis of child abuse and the child welfare agency removing the children. It took 5 months to regain custody of her sons and two and a half years to get JJ the correct medical diagnosis of Benign External Hydrocephalus, a condition where cerebrospinal fluid builds up in the cranium.

The separation was traumatic for both the parents and the children. Lorina only got to visit her children twice a week for two hours at a time. Their four-year-old lost 20 pounds while in foster care. Both of her sons seemed depressed and missed home. And Lorina’s sons aren’t the only children to have negative experiences.

What effect does foster care have on children? It turns out that entering the foster care system can cause a multitude of problems: attachment issues, difficulties forming relationships, mental health disorders, poorer overall health, and educational failures. Foster care is supposed to be a temporary solution whereby the child is adopted by a loving family or is reunited with the biological family once the situation is deemed safe. Some children are never reunified or adopted, and the effects are damaging.

There are nearly 443,000 children currently in foster care in the United States. On average, children remain in state care for nearly two years and 8% of children in foster care have been there for five or more years. Only 32% of foster children live in relative foster family homes. And while most children in foster care live in family settings, 23% live in institutions or group homes.

As the public policy pendulum swings back and forth between family preservation (keeping children with their biological parents) and protecting children by placing them in foster care — most experts now agree that the best thing to do is try to leave them at home if at all possible and provide good services to help the family cope.

If that’s not possible, the next best solution is to have family members or nearby foster parents take the kids in, and at the same time provide a group of professionals (a therapist, a pediatrician, a social worker, a tutor) to help the kids and the adults. This is called “wraparound services” and has been working well in pilot programs in this country and in others, like England. This is designed to prevent a child from falling through the cracks, which happens all too often when one over-burdened social worker is the only one responsible for the safety of a child.

But what happens to children that spend time in the foster care system? Several studies suggest that compared to the general population, former foster children have poorer physical health. Children in foster care may have mental health problems, anxiety, depressive symptoms or general mental difficulties and the overall health care of children who have been established in care for more than six months is significantly worse than for those living in their own homes. They had less self-esteem, less happiness, and less satisfaction with life than did former foster-home residents and persons in the general population.

When youth enter foster care, they are more likely to have been held back one or more years and to perform more poorly on standardized assessments than other students their age. The schools that youth in foster care attend are often among the lowest performing. While they are in foster care, youth continue to lag behind their peers academically. Youth in foster care are less likely to graduate from high school than their peers. Although a majority of youth in foster care aspire to attend college, they are less likely than their peers to enroll in college. Compared with their peers, college students who had been in foster care are less likely to earn a college degree.

Lorina and her family are trying to heal from the trauma of separation, legal battles, and financial loss. She has become an advocate for families like hers that have experienced devastating results from a child’s misdiagnosis. She has lobbied lawmakers in Texas, California, and Washington D.C. to change laws on getting second medical opinions and the role of Child welfare systems in instances like these. 

Lorina says, “Our strength came from our faith, our prayer, and the love and support of family and friends. But we went through the most challenging events of our lives, and it has strengthened us.” She has now written a book, titled “Miracles of Faith,” that goes into the details of her family’s journey through the medical and legal systems and how their faith saw them through it all. 

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