The epigenetics of the foster system

I’ve been thinking about epigenetics a great deal lately. I know that at least some of you probably share my tendency of getting fixated on a subject and doing it to death, and right now, mine is epigenetics, because I find it completely fascinating. Perhaps not surprising, given that genetics has always been a subject of deep absorption for me, and I have fond memories of long hours spent poring over books about the genome, patterns of inheritance, and more in childhood — perhaps if my dyscalculia had actually been diagnosed, I would have felt more comfortable in maths and sciences, and might have pursued a career in genomics or a related field.

But let’s return to epigenetics rather than irritation with incompetent school districts. For those not familiar with the phenomenon — and it’s a relatively recent discussion in the mainstream — it explores the idea that it is possible to see horizontal changes to the genome. Put differently, most genetics is a pattern of vertical inheritance: Both parents passed on the genes that tend to code for height, hey presto, you are tall. You in turn pass on those genes…and along the way, all sorts of debris and interesting things can get attached to those genes. For example, sickle cell anemia is an issue in some African populations, and it’s linked to genes known to increase resistance to malaria. You win some, you lose some.

Epigenetics refers to the idea that changes to the genome can occur during your own generation. In this case, an external factor — like, say, exposure to a source of nuclear waste — makes genes switch on and off. That changes the way your body reads those genes, and moreover, it passes that change on to future generations. Another example: Patients exposed to diethylstilbestrol (DES) in utero are more likely to experience miscarriages and pregnancy complications even though they themselves did not take the drug. Moreover, so are their children. DES activated genes that were dormant in their parents, causing lasting generational effects. Similar effects have been observed with other hormonal exposures during pregnancy.

So and thus, okay, we know that external and environmental factors influence certain genes. Here’s where things get interesting. When people hear ‘environmental factors,’ they typically think teratogenic medications, pollution, toxic chemicals, and so forth. However, studies indicate that hunger, poverty, racism, and other systemic social issues also have epigenetic effects. The way that people are treated by society, and the way they interact with society, can have a profound effect on which genes are activated and what they pass on to future generations. See, for example, permanent genetic changes in children who grew up with extreme deprivation during the Great Depression and their descendants, or those who endured the Hunger Winter and subsequently became a fascinating population for geneticists to observe.

This brought me to some thoughts about epigenetics and possible interactions with foster care. I am not a scientist, and thus this is entirely speculation, and I would warrant that there are some studies on the subject out there, but I would like to see more, because this could be extremely relevant to how we address necessary reforms in the foster care system. Aside from the fact that issues like abuse hurt children in realtime, they may also have a profound effect on their health over the course of their lifetimes — as seen when people in high-stress situations develop PTSD because their ‘flight or fight’ gene is basically permanently activated. Not only that, but it could have effects for their children as well, thus perpetuating problematic cycles of things like poverty. This is, to put it mildly, not good.

We know that children in foster care experience a much higher rate of poverty (50 percent as opposed to 22 percent — that last is not adjusted for race or disability status, and represents an overall census). We know that children of colour, specifically low-income children of colour, are more likely to end up in foster care. We know that issues like hunger and racism affect epigenetics, and we know that growing up poor can also subject children to teasing and bullying — being the poor kid means being an easy target for other children, creating added stress and manufacturing a burden of anxiety.

In the short term, this harms children who grow up in foster care. It’s awful. There are a lot of things about the foster care system that are extremely troubling, from the way Native children are handled to the atrocious rates of uninvestigated abuse and lack of access to health care. For these reasons alone, the system needs to be closely examined and reformed, because it’s ridiculous and unconscionable to treat children like this. We owe children a duty of care. They are unable to defend themselves and often restricted from advocating for themselves, particularly in the case of children dumped into the foster care system, as they don’t even have parents to speak up for them.

But this also has tremendous implications for the long term. Yank a child out of poverty and drop her right into an impoverished foster home? That’s going to create lasting problems — like delays of brain development — that will dog her throughout her life, and may contribute to intergenerational poverty, because it will actually change her genome.

Epigenetics upends a lot of discussion about nature and nurture and the interaction of the two, as we learn that genetics isn’t as simple as what you inherit, because sometimes, it’s about what happens around you, and what happened to your parents. With a growing awareness of epigenetics and its implications for human health and wellbeing, it’s long-past time to start talking about what that means for people trapped in the foster care system.

Image: Child Sense, Elvin, Flickr