(BPT) – Did you know there are almost 437,000 children and youth in foster care? According to the American Society for the Positive Care of Children, 45% of foster children are living in non-relative foster family homes, and they may spend an average of 20 months in foster care. The average age of children entering foster care is eight years old, which is a crucial time for a child’s overall development.

In honor of National Foster Care Month, you can learn more about the needs of children in foster care, and how to support them and the caregivers who are doing their best to meet their needs and to keep them safe, happy and healthy.

“I grew up in and out of foster care starting at age 4 and I decided to pursue medicine and become a pediatrician as a way of giving back,” says national senior medical director for UnitedHealthcare Community & State, Dr. Arethusa Kirk. “Having lived this experience as a child in foster care, I know how crucial support services are to well-being and ultimately to the achievement of full potential.”

Kirk emphasized how vital it is for anyone caring for a foster child to seek support throughout the process.

“Beyond coping with whatever crisis led the child to enter the foster system, the very act of having to move from a familiar environment to one that is unfamiliar is an adjustment which can be traumatic,” says Kirk. “If you are currently a foster parent or considering becoming a foster parent, continuously exploring all available resources to help you provide the best possible environment for these children is necessary to meet their unique needs of support and understanding.”

Children in foster care generally have more health care needs than other children, and they tend to have higher rates of exposure to trauma compared to other youth. Because of the inherently disruptive nature of foster placement, which involves the loss of connections to family, school, friends and a familiar lifestyle, many children in foster care face serious behavioral health and developmental challenges.

Children in foster care, compared to other children, are:

  • 2x as likely to have learning disabilities and developmental delays
  • 3x as likely to have ADD/ADHD
  • 5x as likely to have anxiety
  • 6x as likely to have behavioral issues
  • 7x as likely to have depression

The good news is, while children in foster care face more adversity and exposure to trauma, they also possess extraordinary resilience and, with support and understanding, can develop mastery in life management skills and emotional intelligence.

Resources to help children and caregivers

To serve the unique needs of children in foster care and their caregivers, UnitedHealthcare offers integrated behavioral health care programs. By partnering with child welfare systems, Medicaid agencies, caregivers and community organizations, their solutions are designed to help children and youth in foster care improve their lives and chances for success.

Their programs work to:

  • Collaborate with everyone in the foster care system to address the unique challenges children in foster care and foster families face
  • Improve access to and coordination of medical and behavioral health care
  • Provide better access to community support services
  • Increase the chances of stable placement
  • Support family reunification

“I’m proud of the many ways UnitedHealthcare has invested in improving health outcomes for children in foster care,” adds Kirk. “We’re committed to finding ways to put the child at the center of our focus when working to integrate all the services the state, child welfare organizations and education providers offer.”

UnitedHealthcare also partners with Sesame Street Communities in Action, a nonprofit organization supporting foster parents and foster care organizations. The organization has developed hundreds of bilingual multi-media tools to help kids and families. Their resources engage kids and adults during everyday moments and daily routines to teach early math and literacy concepts, encourage families to eat nutritious foods and help them deal with serious topics such as divorce and food insecurity.

For decades, Sesame Street has used the power of the Muppets to help children and families cope with tough topics, and the creation of Karli, a new Muppet who is in foster care, is just one more example.

“I encourage anyone interested in helping children in foster care to visit their website for resources designed to support foster parents and caregivers,” said Kirk. “Through videos, a storybook, printables and interactive activities, children will meet their new Muppet Karli, who shares many aspects of their foster experience and provides a relatable mirror to their histories, questions and feelings.”

To access these resources, visit SesameStreetinCommunities.org/foster-care.