America’s foster care system: progress on many fronts, but still overburdened


November 14, 2019

Editor’s note: CHN Intern Elliot Svirnovskiy is a sophomore and political science major at George Washington University.

An annual study of foster care in the United States reveals good news and bad news – and there are newly emerging threats, both at the state and federal level.

The good news: for most of the 2010s, federal data showed the number of children in foster care steadily increasing after a previous decade of decline. The reason, in part, was the opioid crisis. Now, however, the number of children in foster care is declining, while the number of homes available to foster youth is on the rise.

That’s according to The Chronicle of Social Change, which every year compiles and analyzes data on foster youth and foster placements. The Chronicle describes itself as “the nation’s leading news outlet covering child welfare and juvenile justice.”

The Chronicle also found some bad news. Many states are still grappling with capacity. And in several states, there are disturbing trends regarding placement of black and Native American children. Here is a summary of the Chronicle’s findings:

Number of youth in care declining: Between 2011 and 2017, the number of children in America living in foster homes increased by about 8 percent. Over the last two years that trend has begun to reverse itself. The Chronicle projects that the number of children living in foster homes peaked in 2018 and will decrease by around 3 percent by the end of 2019.

Foster homes on the rise: On a national scale the number of licensed foster homes is rising. In 2018, the number of licensed foster homes was estimated at 210,000 to 215,000 units. By the end of 2019, that number is expected to rise to 220,000 to 225,000.

The “congregate care” cliff: Nationally, the number of youth in group homes and institutions has decreased by 12 percent between 2011 and 2017. 20 states, however saw the number of children in congregate care rise. Ten of those states have seen a rise of over 20 percent. This is significant, because congregate care is the most expensive type of foster care. By 2021, as a result of the Family First Prevention Services Act, federal funding directed towards congregate care will decrease drastically. It is clear then, that states seeing an increase in congregate care use will need to take action to reverse this trend.

Overall, foster care is getting younger and whiter: On the whole, the Chronicle concludes that foster children are getting “younger and whiter.”

Sharp increases among Native American and black youth in some states: Native American populations are seeing an increase in children in foster care as well. A number of the 11 states that have seen an increase in foster youth have large Native American populations. Minnesota, for example, has seen a 148 percent increase in Native American foster youth. Further, even though the number of black children in foster care has decreased on a national level, some states, such as Alabama and Indiana, saw a dramatic rise in this category.

Rising role of relatives: 80 percent of states saw an increase in the number of youths living with relatives between 2011 and 2017. 30 states saw the number of youths living with family members rise by 40 percent. This trend will continue to rise due to passage of the Family First Prevention Services Act. The act enables states to allocate more federal dollars to families in order to “avoid to the use of foster care in some child welfare cases.”

Unpaid caregivers: With some exceptions, the majority of relative-led homes receive no compensation. Between 2011 and 2017, the number of foster youth living in a home without a payment associated with it rose by 32 percent. Thankfully, more relatives taking in a youth may receive compensation when the Family First Prevention Services Act takes is fully implemented.

One new threat not mentioned in the report: withdrawal of Obama-era rule. Perhaps most troubling, the Trump Administration has rescinded an Obama-era rule that barred discrimination in the foster care system. The Department of Health and Human Services rule stated that “no person otherwise eligible will be excluded from participation in… HHS services based on… age, sex, race, color, national origin, religion, gender identity, or sexual orientation.” The withdrawal of this policy threatens to limit an already starved program by decreasing the quantity of homes and families that can take in fostered youths.

Conclusion: There is no denying that the American foster care system is making positive strides. On a national scale, fewer children are in foster care, and foster capacity is increasing. Unfortunately, the system still leaves much to be desired. These benefits are not yet being seen by all Americans, and often, the most vulnerable children have yet to receive the help they need.

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