10/17/2011 12:31 EDT | Updated 12/17/2011 05:12 EST

Suicide risk reduced once troubled kids in foster care: Manitoba study

WINNIPEG - A study by researchers at the University of Manitoba suggests that foster children are much more likely to commit suicide than other kids, but that likelihood decreases as they spend time in care.

In other words, the children were troubled long before they were taken in and foster care, despite some very high-profile tragedies, generally helps.

"Rates of suicide attempts and hospital admissions within this population were highest before entry into care and decreased thereafter," says the study released Monday and published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

The research team, including Dr. Laurence Katz and Dr. Jitender Sareen of the university's psychiatry department, examined 8,279 children and teenagers who entered Manitoba's child-welfare system between April 1, 1997, and March 31, 2006. They compared the rates of suicide, attempted suicide, hospitalization and visits to doctors with figures from 353,050 kids who had never been in foster care.

The data showed that youngsters in foster care had a suicide rate 3.54 times higher than those who weren't. The rate of attempted suicide was 2.1 times higher. Child welfare kids also visited a doctor and were admitted to hospital more often.

When the researchers broke down the numbers further, they found rates were highest in the two-year period before children were placed in foster care. After the placement, the rates dropped virtually across the board.

"Kids who are involved in the foster-care system often have a lot of difficulties in their families and (other) issues, and that has a long-term negative impact," Sareen said in an interview.

"I think the quality of the system in Manitoba ... could still be improved, but it may not be causing harm and the kids might be vulnerable for other reasons."

The study also found suicide rates did not increase among children who were moved frequently between foster homes.

That finding came as a surprise, Sareen said, since it is generally believed that instability can add to a foster child's mental health challenges.

That instability was a key focus in the inquest into the death of Tracia Owen, a 14-year-old girl who hanged herself in Winnipeg in August 2005. Tracia had been in and out of different foster and group homes almost her entire life and had begun sniffing gasoline.

Provincial court Judge John Guy wrote in his inquest report that "the constant movement from place to place ... had to have a serious toll" and suggested that child-welfare cases be flagged after a child goes through five placements.

The University of Manitoba researchers say more studies are needed on the effects of foster care on teen mental-health issues. Only two such studies have been done and both were in Sweden, the team wrote.

The Manitoba findings are to be presented at the joint Canadian and American Academies of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry conference in Toronto on Friday.