Former foster children are twice as likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder as Iraq war veterans, a study of 659 Washington and Oregon foster care alumni shows.

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OLYMPIA — Former foster children are twice as likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder as Iraq war veterans, a study of 659 Washington and Oregon foster care alumni shows.

The study, released today at a congressional briefing, says that adults who were in foster care struggle with mental health problems much more often than the general population.

“We are alarmed,” said Ruth Massinga, president and CEO of the Seattle-based Casey Family Programs. “As a country we are not doing right by these children.”

Researchers from Harvard Medical School, the University of Michigan and Casey Family Programs reviewed cases of 659 adults, ages 20-33, who had lived in foster care between 1988 and 1998. They interviewed 479 of them.

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Most of the study subjects entered foster care because they were abused or neglected by their birth parents. Even though one-third said they were mistreated in foster care, 81 percent said they felt loved in their foster homes.

More than half the study participants reported clinical levels of mental illness, compared to less than a quarter of the general population. Foster children are especially vulnerable for post-traumatic stress disorder: 25 percent of study respondents had it.

National studies show that 12-13 percent of Iraq war veterans and 15 percent of Vietnam war veterans suffer from PTSD.

Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, happens to some people who experience or witness life-threatening events such as military combat, serious accidents, or violent personal assaults. People with PTSD often relive the trauma through nightmares and flashbacks and feel detached or estranged.

Foster children are traumatized both from living with abusive parents and from being removed from their homes, the study says.

“The very act of removal from their parents is often traumatic for the youth,” researchers wrote, “potentially resulting in post-traumatic stress disorder and creating a sense of hypervigilance because their lives become unpredictable.”

Former foster children were twice as likely to be depressed (20 percent) as the general population (10 percent).

The study also found that foster children struggle with education, employment and money once they leave the system at age 18. A third of former foster children are at or below the poverty line, three times the national poverty rate. More than one in five foster care alumni were homeless sometime during the year after they left foster care.

Nationally, about 800,000 children a year enter foster care because of abuse or neglect in their homes, including about 7,000 in Washington state.

Researchers looked for ways to improve outcomes for foster kids as well. They created statistical simulations that found, for example, that increasing Medicaid mental health coverage and giving foster kids more stability by not moving them around so much would reduce their chances for mental illness later in life.

“There are many program reforms that can be made now,” researchers wrote.