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  • Jaxzia Perez

The foster care-to-prison pipeline: A road to incarceration

Updated: Oct 18, 2023

In 2020, the Children’s Bureau at the Administration for Children and Families, a division of the United States Department of Health and Human Services, reported that there were approximately 407,000 children in foster care. The foster care-to-prison pipeline refers to the funneling of children in foster care into juvenile detention or adult incarceration. By age 17, over 50% of foster children will have an encounter with the juvenile legal system through arrest, conviction or detention. In addition, 25% of youth in foster care will be involved with the criminal legal system within two years of leaving foster care. If a child has moved to five or more placements, they are at a 90% risk of being involved with the criminal legal system.

From the war on drugs to the school-to-prison pipeline, researchers have continuously traced waves of mass incarceration to the political atmosphere. The most recent trend—the foster care-to-prison pipeline—is no different. Despite fewer children entering foster care today as compared to three years ago, the likelihood that a child in foster care will interact with the criminal legal system has increased. In fact, one study showed that 70% of former foster care youth were arrested at least once before age 26.

Even though social services is doing its best to provide homes for the children in its care, the institutionalization of the foster care system puts children at risk for further institutionalization in their adult life. Often children entering foster care have been neglected, abused and traumatized for life, but are expected to adjust to a foster care home or placement on short notice. Children may have to change schools, move with their belongings in a trash bag and are potentially placed with untrained foster parents due to the shortage of adequate foster families. Due to the deeply flawed foster care system, many children who need safe and secure environments are left with a lack of structure and resources, creating the foster care-to-prison pipeline.

Some studies have found that foster care children have an increased risk of behavioral issues after a recent placement and many children have had the police called on them by their school administrator or caregivers. Children living in foster care homes are even more likely than children living with a foster family to have police called on them by staff members, especially for altercations between foster kids. The stereotype that foster care children are underprivileged and troublemakers only exacerbate their insecurities and misfortunes. Once incarcerated while in foster care, even for a brief period, children often associate returning to foster care with the idea that they will be sent back to a detention center or to being ignored at home.

The systemic challenges of foster care have increased the number of children involved in the criminal legal system. Hopefully, the foster care-to-prison pipeline is just a current trend and as wide-spread changes are implemented, less children will be funneled to the criminal legal system. Foster care as an institution needs more resources and empathetic, trauma-focused foster families and procedures to aid children during their transition. Resources for tutoring, college-preparation programs and therapy can help decrease the impact of the criminal legal system on children. Changing a child’s mindset can go a long way to reducing their risk of detention.

Additionally, there is a disproportionate number of children in need of a foster home compared to available well-trained foster families in the system. More funds need to be allocated to train foster families to recognize the possible trauma reactions and responses of their future foster care children. Lastly, foster care procedures must incorporate more empathetic practices when working with a child recently removed from their parents or a child reacting negatively to their new environment.

The foster care-to-prison pipeline will continue to flow strong if the foster care system does not undergo serious institutional changes. Once children have the mentality that they are worth nothing or that no one cares for them, the criminal legal system does not seem as scary as it really is.

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