The relation between dimensions of maltreatment, placement instability, and mental health among youth in foster care

Austen McGuire, Bridget Cho, Lindsay Huffhines, Stephanie Gusler, Shaquanna Brown, Yo Jackson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

70 Scopus citations


Youth in foster care with maltreatment experiences often demonstrate higher rates of mental and behavioral health problems compared to youth in the general population as well as maltreated youth who remain at home. Previous research has demonstrated that dimensions of maltreatment (type, frequency, and severity) and placement instability are two prominent factors that account for high rates of psychopathology (e.g., depression, anxiety, and disruptive behavior disorders). The present study sought to clarify the relation between maltreatment and mental health among youth in foster care by studying both the isolated dimensions of maltreatment and cumulative maltreatment, and to determine whether the effects of maltreatment on mental health operated indirectly through placement instability. Information on youth in foster care's (N = 496, Mage = 13.14) mental and behavioral health, maltreatment history, and placement changes were obtained from state records and primary caregivers. Using a SEM framework, the results suggest that maltreatment and placement instability each independently relate to mental and behavioral health problems. Further, none of the maltreatment types predicted greater placement instability in the current models. These findings suggest that placement stability is critical for mental health for youth in foster care, regardless of the type, severity, or frequency of their maltreatment experiences. Results also indicated that, although cumulative maltreatment predicted both internalizing and externalizing symptoms, maltreatment frequency and severity had direct relations to externalizing symptoms only. These findings underscore the utility of comprehensive maltreatment assessment, encouraging researchers and clinicians to assess and carefully consider the relation between maltreatment dimensions and outcomes.
Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)10-21
Number of pages12
JournalChild Abuse and Neglect
StatePublished - Dec 1 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • Foster care
  • Maltreatment
  • Mental health
  • Placement instability
  • Youth


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