The Case for Intervening with our Youth who Need it Most (because it is not their fault)

August 31, 2021

The Case for Intervening with our Youth who Need it Most (because it is not their fault)

Blog Post by Sonali Bhargava, Catalyst Center Intern

The “nature vs nurture” debate is an age-old discussion of which way humans are shaped as individuals from childhood to adulthood, and can be applied to nearly every aspect of human life. For those of you who are not familiar with this concept, here are the fundamentals of the discourse:

“Nature” can be simplified into those characteristics that an individual is born with, such as phenotypic appearance, skin color, biology, and I will argue, sexuality.
“Nurture” refers to the way an individual is shaped by his or her environment and life experiences - including, but not limited to, early childhood, education, and social interactions.

Over time, various groups and individuals have tended to subscribe to one of these ideas about the way that humans acquire their characteristics. Origins of the nature/nurture debate can be traced back to the mid-19th century, when anthropologist Francis Galton coined the term to support his investigation into the genetic basis behind intelligence. Over the next few centuries, the common perspective of the debate shifted - once nativist-dominated realms, where the popular belief was that human qualities are inherent, shifted to the ideologies of the behaviorists, who theorize that social interactions shape human behavior. Although proponents of both sides continue to persist, currently many psychologists and others are interested in exploring how both ideas interact to impact one’s personality and behaviors.  


An individual’s field of work almost certainly affects their position on this issue. While a biologist is more inclined to place more value on the way genetics and DNA (nature) shape a person’s life story, a sociologist will be more likely to weigh social interactions and environment (nurture) more heavily. Growing up volunteering within the foster care system, and now interning with the Catalyst Center, it is clear to me that nurture plays a substantial role in determining the life trajectory of an individual. One’s own experiences with life conditions the way an individual will think, and consequently behave - even one’s view on this debate is altered by the way one thinks. The “nurture” narrative thus fits the foster care crisis in the United States today, where the crux of the system lies upon the lack of nurture in the lives of many foster youth. Today, there are about 60,000 youth in the California foster care system. A foster youth often learns to expect disappointment and adversity, as they have become a way of life. In essence, the environment a child grows up in is what they will continue to expect out of life. They become the individuals they are due to the unbelievable challenges they have had to face at vulnerable ages, and their unstable environment and interactions harden them, leading to adaptive behaviors such as self-harm, substance abuse, and aggression. Behavioral and mental  health challenges that often persist throughout a youth’s lifetime also originate from early childhood difficulties. Stability is key - placement disruptions increase the likelihood between36 and 63 percent that a youth will have behavioral challenges in the future. Statistics like these alone demonstrate the impactful role living conditions play in shaping an individual.


Neglect, substance abuse, mental illness - these are a few of the adverse childhood experiences normalized in the lives of children within the system. ACEs, upsetting and traumatic events that occur during childhood, are measured on a point-system scale, with higher numbers correlating to a more difficult childhood. Normalization occurs when distressing events happen so frequently that unusual experiences become standard for an individual. This is especially pertinent for foster youth, who have high comorbidity rates among the ACEs. For example, more than 50% of foster youth were exposed to household substance abuse. When deeply disturbing events, such as witnessing domestic violence or the incarceration of a parent, consistently occur, the physiology of a youth becomes impacted for lifetime as a response to stress, leading to largely increased risks for health problems such as heart disease and lung cancer. When adaptive practices, such as a faster heartbeat and adrenaline, frequently occur, they become maladaptive and destructive to mental and physical wellbeing. Even when controlling for behavioral consequences, the ACEs that a child experiences will negatively affect their life outcome. Accounting for ACEs thus acknowledges the impact that nurture has ultimately on nature, as rough childhood experiences alter the biological health of an individual.


As a strong believer in the impact of “nurture,” I do think it is important to also acknowledge the impact that genetically inherited qualities have on the outcome of one’s livelihood. In an ideal society, individuals would not be restricted by their skin color, sexuality, or other inherent characteristics. However, biases and judgements from the American population do challenge those in oppressed groups and place barriers to their success. For instance, a history of unequal race relations in America makes one’s own race a contributing, if not determining, factor of one’s positionality. Racial trauma, the intersection of systemic racism and psychological pain, is represented by microaggressions, comments, and stereotypes will unfortunately add to the challenges faced by foster youth of color. Black children compose 23% of foster youth in the nation, but represent only 14% of the total population. Race-based traumatic stress creates an unhealthy environment for those experiencing this type of discrimination, and it is imperative that providers within the system address racism, even if they cannot relate to the racial trauma themselves. Outside of the child welfare system, black individuals are more likely to experience incarceration, and reach lower levels of educational attainment, on top of the racism that occurs in their daily lives. I would like to direct you to a piece written by the Catalyst’s own analyst, Rhonda Young, for more information on the impacts of race within African American families. By creating safe spaces to discuss and address issues through a lens of cultural and racial sensitivity, care providers can make youth feel more comfortable and heard.


Furthermore, sexuality, an innate attribute, can also have a great effect on life trajectory. LGBTQ+ individuals are more likely to experience discrimination and mental health illnesses than their cis-gendered heterosexual peers. In foster care facilities, queer youth are more likely to face violence and harassment, and oftentimes their sexual identity contributes to, or causes, violence from their families or origin, with over 30% of LGBTQ+ youth reporting violence from a family member. The intersectionality of oppressed identities  (e.g. being black and transgender) is prevalent in the foster care system and adds to the adverse experiences foster youth face as a result of their situation.


Foster youth are more likely to experience homelessness, become incarcerated, and have mental health problems - all of which can be traced back to the way in which these youth are forced to experience life. Creating a stable and individualized environment for the youth in the California foster care system is of the utmost importance both socially and financially in order to combat these adverse outcomes. When foster youth transition out of the system, a lack of support from their environment yields experiences of homelessness in 1 out of 4 youth. Successful recovery requires housing stability and supportive services.  


In 2012, Assembly Bill 12 took effect, extending the age that foster youth are forced to exit the system from 18 to 21. Research conducted by Mark Courtney and published in Findings from the California Youth Transitions to Adulthood Study: Conditions of Foster Youth at Age 19 looks at the long-term effects of  remaining in extended foster care until age 21. Leaving the system at age 18 vs 21 often means a greater chance of incarceration and an increase in unsafe sexual practices. Nurturing, in this case providing a stable environment within which a youth can learn and grow, does in fact help.


The connection between nurture and children in the child welfare system is readily apparent. As a result of their adverse experiences stemming from a challenging environment, foster youth are in need of services - not only living facilities, but mental health programs, educational programs, stable placements, and family finding. Oftentimes, those who support that “nature” plays a greater role are those who have a lack of adverse experiences themselves, and cannot fully grasp the effects of privilege on their own life trajectories. By examining the lives of children in the welfare system, it is evident that extreme life challenges, like the ones that most of these youth must overcome in order to be “successful” adults according to societal standards, play a larger role in determining outcomes (health, social well-being, housing stability, incarceration etc.) than genetics.


Please visit this site again for my next blog, in which I will describe “nurturing” interventions for dependent youth with complex challenges that can meaningfully alter their life trajectories.












Rubin, D. M., O’Reilly, A. L., Luan, X., & Localio, A.R. (2007). The impact of placement stability on behavioral well-being forchildren in foster care. Pediatrics, 119(2), 336-344, para. 3.

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