Foster children at risk of speech and language delays

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Speech pathologists must advocate for services for people who need them. Today, I want to talk about foster children.

According to Barnardos Australia and the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, in Australia:

  • one in seven children lives in poverty;
  • almost a quarter of children are developmentally vulnerable in one or more areas of early childhood development;
  • more than 43,000 children are unable to live with their parents;
  • 41% of these children are living with a foster carer; and
  • children under the age of one are at greatest risk of abuse and neglect.

What does this have to do with language development?

We know that language development is highly sensitive to what some researchers call (somewhat euphemistically) “early environmental adversity”. For example, studies have shown for decades that the risk of speech and language delays is increased for children:

  • exposed to socioeconomic stress (e.g. Hart & Risley, 1995);
  • with mothers suffering from depression (e.g. Bettes, 1988); and
  • with teenage parents (e.g. Culp et al., 1996).

We also know that children who are neglected and who do not receive positive verbal feedback from their carers are at a heightened risk of language delay (e.g. Walker et al., 1994).

Foster children are at a heightened risk of language delay

Study after study tells us that children in foster care have an increased risk of speech and language delay, as well as associated cognitive, academic, behavioural and social difficulties (e.g. Craven & Lee, 2006).

In overseas studies, the estimated prevalence of language delays among foster children ranges from 35% to a staggering 73% (e.g. see the studies cited in Stock & Fisher, 2006).  In Australia, a screening study of 122 children in foster care in New South Wales found that, shockingly, 45% of children under 5 years of age had a speech delay, and 20% of children aged 5 to 10 years had delayed language skills (Nathanson & Tzioumi, 2007, cited in Golding et al., 2011) – a much higher rate than the prevalence of about 5.95% in the general population (Law et al, 2000).

What does this research mean for speech pathologists?

We need to ensure policy makers and people involved in the care of foster children are aware of this research. We must ensure foster children have access to screening and assessment services so speech and language delays are not missed. For foster children diagnosed with speech and language delays, we need to advocate for services. We need to involve carers and guardians in therapy sessions and offer enhanced care and support. As always, early intervention is crucial, but we mustn’t forget that older children remain at risk.

Obviously, securing additional services is no easy feat. Conducting research into the problem and identifying service gaps is an essential part of the process (e.g. see the studies cited below).

In the meantime, we can all help by educating carers and guardians on what they can do to at home to promote language development and on red flags for possible language delays (including at school), and connecting children at risk with community and other speech pathology services in their local areas.

Principal sources: Golding, S., Williams, C., & Leitao, S. (2011). Speech and Language Development: Knowledge and Experiences of Foster Carers. ACQ, 13(1), 12-19. Stock, C.D. & Fisher, P.A. (2006). Language Delays Among Foster Children: Implications for Policy and Practice. Child Welfare, 85(3), 445-460.


Man wearing glasses and a suit, standing in front of a bay

Hi there, I’m David Kinnane.

Principal Speech Pathologist, Banter Speech & Language

Our talented team of certified practising speech pathologists provide unhurried, personalised and evidence-based speech pathology care to children and adults in the Inner West of Sydney and beyond, both in our clinic and via telehealth.

David Kinnane
Speech-Language Pathologist. Lawyer. Father. Reader. Writer. Speaker.

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